Students are shaping the future of university alliances

The European Students’ Union has taken an historic decision to create a conference of student bodies in the European University alliances to give a more direct voice to student representatives within the alliances, to disseminate good practice and to tackle students’ shared challenges.

The creation of a new form of higher education institution, such as the European Universities, comes with a new form of governance. Student participation plays a crucial role in the development of higher education institutions.

Since the inception of the idea of the European university in 2017, announced in President Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech, the European Students’ Union (ESU) has closely monitored, engaged in and shaped the development of the initiative.

From the first call to the implementation and monitoring process, the ESU has been fighting at all levels, with all involved stakeholders and alongside our national unions for students, for strong and meaningful student representation in the alliances.

Even if there are some alliances that are reluctant to involve students, as a recent publication by the European University Association shows, we recognise there have been some developments in most alliances.

An essential role

Things change fast, including attitudes towards student participation within governance structures. Student representation now plays an essential role in European university alliances, especially since the last calls from the commission clearly state that students have to play a central part in building the alliance.

Most of them recognise the importance of including students in the decision-making process and actively involving them in defining alliance policies and actions. Their participation is encouraged at all levels: from working groups and committees to the alliance’s highest governance bodies.

Students can express their opinions, voice their concerns, propose ideas and contribute to decisions that affect their university experience. Students are considered full partners in university alliances, enabling them to actively contribute to shaping their own university experience and to play a key role in the development of the alliance’s policies and actions.

This movement – from a limited to a more holistic form of participation – begs the questions: What are the main goals of European Universities? Are they really for students? The European student movement believes that the narrative around governance in alliances needs to shift towards greater involvement of students. It makes no sense not to include the main stakeholders of a higher education institution in its governance.

Types of student representation

When it comes to student representation in alliances, there are two types of structures. On the one hand, there are student bodies that are directly integrated within the alliance governance structure, that is, through a student representation framework that is built on by the alliance.

On the other hand, student bodies are created by the students themselves who then advocate to be involved in the institution’s governance. In both cases, the alliances set up a framework of consultations and surveys to gather student opinions as well as establishing dedicated communication channels to encourage the exchange of information between students and alliance officials. We should mention that some alliances still don’t have student representation.

It is interesting to note that in her masters thesis, Student Representatives’ Perceived Effectiveness of their Engagement in European University Alliances’ Governance Structures, Kathrin Ebel states: “To achieve personal, democratic and organisational benefits, it seems to be important for student representatives to have a separate student body, meaning a forum to exchange ideas with each other and discuss and strengthen their opinions before facing other governance members, such as administrative and academic staff as well as the university leadership in a mixed committee set-up. This result is in line with earlier studies suggesting a separation of those with less power.”

A conference of student bodies

In this statement, we see two things. The first is that the option of having a separate structure is beneficial in terms of student participation and having student voices heard. The second is that the creation of a network between the different student bodies at the European level can be beneficial, enabling them to enjoy a forum where they can exchange best practice.

It is with this in mind that the ESU took the historic decision, approved during its last general assembly, to create a “conference of the student bodies of the European alliances of higher education institutions” as a consultative body to ESU on the topic of European Universities.

It aims to give a more direct voice to student representatives within the alliances, to disseminate good practice and to tackle the shared challenges of students in the alliances. As such, the initiative is the first of its kind at the European level.

Through it, we hope to build a more structured and strengthened student representation in the alliances to allow the bringing together of student demands so they can be better heard by stakeholders at the European level and so they can be a model for other European organisations.

ESU is looking forward to the student councils in the alliances joining forces within the conference and calls on the alliances which have no systematic student representation to urgently put it in place, an endeavour which the ESU is happy to support.

Tanguy Guibert is a member of the executive committee of the European Students’ Union (ESU). You can find more information on the ESU website.