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Alarming signs in discussions about the financing of higher education

BRUSSELS – The financing of higher education has become an increasingly important discussion topic in European policy-making processes. This subject has been addressed in several reports and will set the agenda of major events in the upcoming months. However, the European Students’ Union (ESU) has growing concerns about the frame of those discussions.

Meetings of the Bologna Follow-up Group, Directors General of the European Commission, Council of the European Union and the funding forum of the European University Association, are on among the European events that address the funding of higher education institutions. In addition, following ESU’s project called Financing the Students’ Future (FinSt) the European Commission also released the report “Do changes in cost-sharing have an impact on the behaviour of students and higher education institutions?”.

Financing was for a long time considered to be the ‘third rail’ of policy-making in higher education in Europe. It is clear that this trend has now been broken. To put it mildly, we are concerned about some of the ways this issue is being addressed.” says Elisabeth Gehrke, ESU’s chairperson.

Insufficient data used in conclusions

The report from the European Commission attempted to analysed the impact of tuition fees on students. Although ESU recognises the need for more peer-learning and data collection on the financing of higher education, it is deeply concerned with the European Commission’s interpretation of the study. This understanding was noted in related press releases and presented to member states of the European Union and the Bologna Process.
Similar to the authors of the report, ESU considers the data made available in the report to be insufficient insufficient to draw such drastic conclusions as were put forward. The same issue was addressed in ESU’s FinSt project as well as in several of the Bologna implementation reports. Lacking data is for instance evidenced in the report addressing only enrollment numbers as there is no data about the students’ study progression and even less in case of vulnerable groups, that are not defined. Data about vulnerable groups is either not made available by countries or not collected at all. This is an issue that ESU has voiced several time in the past.

Tuition fees or cost-sharing

Moreover, the term “cost sharing” avoids the proper wording of “tuition fees” because “cost sharing” is a broader term referring to the combination of public and private funding. However, the only factor analysed in the report is tuition fees. The claim is that tuition fees have neither negative effects on students in general, nor students from disadvantaged groups as long as student aid in the form of grants or loans is provided. While ESU supports the report in its call for better data about the social status and composition of the student population, it finds the report to be inconclusive and the conclusions of the European Commission misleading.

We would like to encourage the European Commissioner designate Mr. Tibor Navracsics to reconsider this approach to ‘cost-sharing’ and call on the member states to deliver more and better data regarding access and completion of higher education,” says Elisabeth Gehrke, ESU chairperson. She continues, “We are concerned with the ways in which these issues are being framed and the skewed conclusions that are being put forward. We also want to express our dismay that tuition fees are being discussed in certain forums where the student and stakeholder voice is being shut out. This is not responsible policy-making and breeds distrust in a time in Europe where that is the last thing we need.”

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For more information, please contact:

Elisabeth Gehrke, ESU Chairperson: +32/479.591.499 // or Robert Hlynur Baldursson, ESU Communications Manager: +32/473.669.894 //

The European Students’ Union, headquartered in Brussels, is the umbrella organisation of 47 national unions of students from 39 European countries. ESU represents and promotes the educational, social, economical and cultural interests of students at the European level. Through its member unions, ESU represents over 11 million students in Europe. To find out more about ESU, follow us on Twitter @ESUtwt, check out or Facebook page or visit ESU celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012.


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