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European higher education in need of transparency

BRUSSELS – One of the most pressing matters in the higher education field is the drive for transparency. This relates to providing comparative information about higher education institutions and programmes to a variety of users. Naturally, students are among the biggest groups of potential beneficiaries, but it seems that also governments, policy makers, employers and higher education institutions themselves are lacking comparative and trustworthy data on the entire European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The problem is quite obvious from the point of view of current or prospective students: even simple databases about university programmes and their academic characteristics are not available in this age of information technology. The greatest providers of information are the various rankings, gratefully used by the media, but they are often seen as unreliable in methodology and only capturing similar and reputable institutions whilst not really describing what a regular student would get from an institution. What good is it to know whether a university had a Nobel Prize laureate several decades ago?


As mobility of students and staff is seen as a key component in the construction of EHEA, it is still being said that students often make their choices based on the distance of their parents’ washing machine and the fridge. Providing accurate and truthful information could open up more pathways and would be potentially good in supporting mobility as it democratises access to higher education.

This transparency issue has now been put on the agenda of the European Commission and the governing bodies of EHEA. The former is developing a new form of rankings which would be controlled by the users (which is different from how it is right now) and is titled U-Multirank. This development has seen some criticism already from the European Parliament which is set to adopt their reaction to the Commission’s flagship initiative “Youth on the Move” . In this, they call for establishing an information-based system about the programmes instead.

Vote with their feet
Another discussion, which relates to developments whereby students are being asked to pay more and more tuition fees, goes in the way of also providing information about management and thus performance of higher education institutions. In some cases it is as far-reaching as saying that students will start to vote on quality with their feet – by simply leaving bad institutions behind. This of course is a big exaggeration by any means, but it certainly is true that accountability and responsiveness of institutions is a key question for students.

Providing information, especially information that will enable to make judgments on quality, is what will also enable students to be active members in the academic community, being rather the ones to help raise standards of quality than by leaving institutions at their peril by adopting a consumerist approach.

This approach in opposite to simply ranking is indeed what ESU also sees as a priority in this transparency discussion. Meanwhile, ESU is also taking part in the Bologna Follow-Up Group working group that will produce a report on this transparency issue for the 2012 Ministerial Conference of the European Higher Education Area.

ESU will work hard so these discussions will lead to conclusions and actions that will benefit students and other users of comparative, but also qualitative information. This is also why ESU has initiated a project titled “Quest for Quality for Students” that will aim to provide some answers about what kind of information and how to provide that to students. Results from this project are expected in 2012.


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