The European landscape of Higher Education is at an important turning point of its political cycle. A new Bologna cycle for the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) is starting, whose goal will be to operationalise the commitments taken by the Higher Education Ministers, namely on academic freedom and fundamental values of the EHEA, on social dimension and on learning and teaching. Within the European Union, the new cycle of the Erasmus+ Programme started, between high political expectations and worrying faux pas in the implementation of its first year. The cycle of the first cohort of the European Universities is ending, paving the way to a broader general reflection on the structures of these alliances, their goals and their sources of funding. In order to establish the European Education Area (EEA) by 2025 and to support higher education in adapting to climate change, technology, demographic change and the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission is working on a European Strategy for Universities and on overcoming the obstacles to deeper integration of EU Higher Education systems. The Next Generation EU and the National Recovery and Resilience Plans promise massive investments to re-start the EU post-pandemic economy, but the scant involvement of civil society in the design and implementation of the national plans, despite the requirements by the EU law, casts doubts on the commitments of the governments, in terms of investments and reforms, including in Higher Education. In light of this, the Conference on the Future of Europe and the European Year of Youth 2022 must be a turning point in the public discourse on Higher Education and on student involvement in the decision-making processes and in public life.
The European Students’ Union (ESU) believes that the future of education in Europe lies in an integrated European Higher Education Area, where fundamental values, automatic recognition of degrees, upward convergence of student rights and democratic and effective student representation on all levels (from local to European and transnational) are practised. To this end, the European Education Area can help in enabling the processes to remove the obstacles to further integration, but the measures to achieve that need to be designed and implemented with the thorough involvement of all the stakeholders – including students – and need to be available for all the Higher Education Institutions operating in the Area. ESU believes that Higher Education Institutions and national Higher Education systems must maintain the right and the ability to adapt their offer to the needs and specificity of their communities and societies. In order to achieve this, the European Education Area governance body should represent all the EU institutions, European stakeholders and the Member States delegations, within which at least 25% shall be democratically elected student representatives. The EU Council must commit to official recognition of the democratic student representation on all levels of decision making, including within the governance framework of the European Universities while respecting the different traditions of student organising and self-governance. The European added value to education would be visible also in promoting topics insufficiently explored at the national level, such as academic integrity for the benefit of the students, and in promoting ambitious initiatives in the digital transformation of Higher Education. For instance, ESU proposes an initiative involving establishing a European Digital Higher Education platform, open to accredited Higher Education Institutions of the EU Member States and partner countries, which would facilitate the access to courses, credentials and materials for the whole European academic community, as well as serve as the single repository for MOOCs, digital credentials, open access scientific papers and other research and educational material for the broader society, in the spirit of Open Science. The European added value is also present in the issue of mobility, both in ensuring broad access to inclusive physical mobility and in tackling structural inequalities within Europe and its Higher Education systems that lead to brain drain.
ESU believes that the Conference on the Future of Europe needs to be used to make new ideas on the future of education to emerge. That is why ESU, together with the National Alliance of Student Organisations in Romania (ANOSR), organised the event ‘The future of the EU and the future of Education – what’s in for students?’, which brought together student activists from different countries, as well as from ESU’s associate membership (European sectoral student federations) to share their vision on education in Europe. From the discussions, some conclusions emerge:
These proposals are valid for all the EHEA countries: the European Union can have a role in achieving them, but it must leave its programmes open for other countries to join these endeavours as well.
ESU will continue promoting its vision for education at the Conference on the Future of Europe through all the channels at its disposal: by sharing its proposals in the Conference platform, by coordinating activities at the national and European level and within the Plenary of the Conference through its membership, and by engaging in the definition of the priorities of the different organisations and coalitions ESU is part of and which hold seats within the Conference Plenary. In this regard, we share the concerns of the Lifelong Learning Platform on the difficulties by civil society organisations to have their voice heard within the process and through the online platform, on the organisational shortcomings of the proceedings of the Conference Plenary and on the uncertainty about the outcomes of the Conference, which risk turning the probably biggest experiment of deliberative democracy at such scale into a failure. ESU underlines how the success of the Conference lies in the mobilisational capacity of movements, associations and organisations, from the local to the European level, and in providing the Conference and its Plenary with adequate instruments fit for the ambition of the purpose.
The level of ambition for the European Year of Youth 2022 needs to be matched with concrete actions and set bold outcomes. Being students a separate but linked constituency to youth, ESU believes that the European Year of Youth should have two purposes: putting the ‘youth social question’ at the centre of next year’s policy proposals; establish once and for all that participatory, democratic, representative mechanisms of coordination and dialogue between youth (including students), policymakers and governance structures. This is the only way forward, abandoning for good any other non-viable practices. That is why ESU supports the European Youth Forum’s demands for the Conference on the Future of Europe, and thinks they are even more relevant within the framework of the European Year of Youth. Within the Higher Education sector, students need to be involved in all the steps of the creation of the European Education Area (including the European Strategy for Universities), in the implementation of the Bologna tools, as well as in the development of new strategies in governance, legislation and implementation.
The European policy cycles in Higher Education, the Conference on the Future of Europe and the European Year of Youth can succeed only if the whole transformational potential of students is harnessed: this means listening to their needs, discussing their proposals and giving them a real say on the future of their continent.