Closing the student representation gap in global education

Today’s system of global education governance and policy-making is characterised by a complex and multilayered interplay of interests and actors seeking to influence relevant spaces and processes. It is a highly interlinked, yet decentralised and non-hierarchical polity that strives for and derives legitimacy through participation, negotiation and mediation between stakeholders.

Among the most important institutional players are international organisations: the United Nations and its subsidiary agencies, specifically the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) alongside powerful multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait.

The international education sector is also home to a diverse and vibrant civil society community. This community is composed of non-governmental organisations and trade unions which have developed their respective partnerships and pathways to enact policy influence over decades.

Some of them enjoy a considerable degree of participation and formalisation in regard to their relationships with key institutions.

Absent student voices

While education workers, educational institutions and civil society have been well represented through their global umbrella organisations – such as Education International, the International Association of Universities and the Global Campaign for Education – the democratic and representative voice of secondary and tertiary student unions has been formally absent from the discourse since the end of the Cold War.

When the pro-communist International Union of Students collapsed under political and financial pressure as a result of the unfolding post-1989 world order, a void emerged that was not filled for more than 30 years until the Global Student Forum (GSF) was established.

The 2016 Student Voice Conference in Bergen, Norway, represented a unique opportunity for national student union delegations from across the globe to come together for the first time in recent years. It was followed by an extended period of further mapping, development of transcontinental relationships and political rapprochement between regional and national student organisations.

The GSF was founded in 2020 by the All-Africa Students Union, the European Students’ Union, the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions, the Commonwealth Students Association and the Latin American and Caribbean Continental Students Organisation (or OCLAE) as the formal unification of the world’s largest student federations and their national organisations.

Through its 202 member unions from 122 countries, it is the democratic and independent voice of learners worldwide, representing the economic, social, cultural and educational interests of more than 200 million secondary and tertiary students from around the world in the international community, its institutions and the global education sector specifically.

Global governance

While the dominant shift to more participative methods of governance, at national and regional levels, in most parts of the world was used by representative unions of students to strengthen their formal influence and recognition as a fixed component of a modern educational leadership approach, governance and policy-making – the system of global education governance – has not seen a legitimate global union of students claiming this space.

The student representation gap in the education processes of the UN system has, however, been superficially filled through youth involvement, commonly through the application of a top- down approach in which the institutional leadership cherry picks young people, usually individuals without any accountability to an electorate of learners or a commonly agreed policy framework on which they would act.

When the UNESCO Global Education Cooperation Mechanism was under review in 2021, a broad coalition of civil society organisations and the international student movement, under the GSF umbrella, advocated for the creation of a student seat at the SDG 4 High-Level Steering Committee (HLSC) and Sherpa Group.

The aim was for this student seat to be held by a student representative, democratically elected by the student movement, as is the case for the teacher seat on the HLSC and Sherpa Group which is taken up by Education International.

Despite tremendous lobby efforts, UNESCO rejected the proposal and instead the SDG4Youth Network was launched as a mechanism through which UNESCO’s secretariat appointed individuals who would select a youth representative for the HLSC. The few student union members who were accepted into SDG4Youth later collectively withdrew from the network over such tokenistic facilitation methods and undemocratic practices.

The UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 in Barcelona intentionally excluded student representatives by turning a blind eye to timely and repeated requests for cooperation and access to the event until visa timelines and travel arrangements were no longer feasible, especially for non-EU/EEA (European Union/European Economic Area) citizens.

A turning point

The Transforming Education Summit (TES) at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, however, marked a turning point in regard to the meaningful participation of student unions in the UN’s education framework. The international student movement was well represented at the summit by a regionally diverse delegation of elected student leaders who were actively involved in hosting official sessions and participating in a variety of panels.

Student unions have also been successful in influencing the content of the TES Youth Declaration which is largely in line with the GSF TES Policy Recommendations elaborated upon in an extensive consultation process involving national student delegations from more than 60 countries.

One of the most remarkable calls for the purposeful involvement of student representatives in education governance and policy-making is found in the first paragraph of the Youth Declaration: “We demand that decision-makers engage with youth in all our diversity, including elected student representatives, in a meaningful, effective, diverse and safe manner in the design, implementation, execution, monitoring and evaluation of the process to transform education – including the follow-up to the Transforming Education Summit.”

We currently find ourselves at a turning point with regard to the governance architecture of the international education sector.

The by far largest group within the educational community, secondary and tertiary students, organised within the GSF in a fundamentally democratic, worldwide, multilevel governance system that ranges from the institutional all the way up to the global level, is demanding a seat at all tables at which educational and social realities of learners are decided.

With positive reassurances from UNESCO’s political leadership and the education civil society sector, there are good reasons to believe that the coming months will bring forward a decision to grant observer status to the international student movement within the Global Education Cooperation Mechanism and its core committees, the SDG 4 HLSC and Sherpa Group.

This will be the first important step ahead of the creation of a student seat in addition to the existing youth seat as a long-term advocacy goal.

Continued strategic dialogue between student unions, policy-makers and educational leaders on how to ensure meaningful student participation at all levels of education governance is needed to democratise education systems, increase educational quality and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education.

Sebastian Berger is executive director of the Global Student Forum.