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Interview with Fernando Galan Palomares, ESU’s new chairperson

You are originally from Spain, and have been elected as the new Chairperson of the European Students’ Union (ESU) during the Board Meeting 68 that took place in Yerevan, Armenia.  Tell me a bit more about yourself…

I served as Vice-Chairperson of ESU since July 2013 and a year earlier, was a member of ESU’s Executive Committee. Since I began my university education I have been involved in different levels of student representation at national and university level, mainly in the fields of student-centred learning, online education, rankings, recognition and quality assurance. As ESU representative, I have participated in the Bologna Follow-Up Group and different expert groups of the EU and UNESCO.

I am actually a first generation university student in my family. All my family comes from Coca (Segovia), a very small town in the middle of the fields of Castile where the closest city is over 50km away, quite a rural part of Spain. My dad only finished school education, and my mum high school, going back to VET as a mature student when she was in her thirties.

1.    How did you get involved in student activism and ESU specifically?

I moved to study medicine from my hometown to Santander, over 300 km away, a city on the north coast of Spain. On of the very first days the Faculty’s Dean and some students’ reps came to welcome us and said that running for elections for the faculty students’ union was a very good way of doing something and getting to know new people. So there is when everything started. The next year I was the chairperson of my faculty students’ union and on the executive committee of my university students’ union. Since then indeed I can affirm I got to know a lot of interesting people. 😉
But to be very honest, I was always a very active person. I’ve been involved in a youth association in my hometown and founded the students’ union of my high school, where I also served in the governing body. I guess I learned from my parents this societal and political engagement, as they both served in the parents’ association, and even during one mandate my mum and me were seated at the high school governing body, which was a bit awkward.
I knew ESU from very long time ago, as its publications were always of great use for our work in the students’ unions at the local and national level. However I never thought that I would ever get involved in such an amazing organisation. Surprisingly enough, ESU launched a call for a new structure that they created back them: the quality assurance student experts’ pool. It was exactly on the field I was working for a while back in Spain and decided to give a try and apply… and here I am.

2.    Tell us a bit about ESU’s history? What are some of the greatest challenges ESU has struggled with so far?

ESU has a considerable long history; it was established as WESIB – Western European Students’ Information Bureau in 18th October 1982, loosing the “W” after the fall of the Berlin wall. W/ESIB was mainly a platform for exchange of information and good practices between the few national students’ unions members of our organisation back them.
Since 1982 a lot of things have happened at European level, and especially in the field of education. The growing European Union, both in terms of member states and of competences (or of the role playing) in the field of education had a significant impact. Not to forget the Lisbon Recognition convention in 1997, the Sorbonne declaration in 1998 and finally the kick-off of the Bologna Process in 1999. Thus ESIB changed its role of just exchanging information of national students’ unions to becoming a union itself and having a growing role in advocacy and lobby work, but also in members. This evolution was reflected in two way: the headquarters where moved from Vienna to Brussels in 2003 and the name was changed to the European Students’ Union (ESU) in 2007.
More than 30 years of existence means going through a lot of different struggles, most of them at a political level where still there are no clear direct competences over education at EU level, but quite some money and a very big influence. Also internally, ESU had to adapt to the changing world in order to be better prepared to defend the students’ rights.
I strongly recommend the reading of our 30th anniversary publication “ESU turns 30! – Fighting for student rights since 1982”, which paints a picture of how ESU has developed itself in the past three decades and where it is bound to go.

3.    What are some of the significant achievements ESU is proud of?

This a very difficult question to answer, as throughout the history of ESU there have been major achievements that different generations of ESU representatives might feel especially proud of. A major role that ESU played was to be the link between national students’ unions in Europe when this was not exactly easy and there were open armed conflicts between different European countries. Building a strong student movement at European level was never easy, but the time has shown us that it was totally worthy.
When there was an increase of initiatives and of competences over education at European level, ESU was there. A delegation of ESIB at that time was present during the ministerial conference that launched the Bologna Declaration in 1999, being officially invited from 2001 and becoming consultative member of the Bologna Process, actively participating since then.
ESU, and its initiatives such as “Bologna With Students’ Eyes”, are well know, not only in Europe, but also at a global level. Our main battle has been to make sure that students are adequately represented and take part in the decision-making in higher education. It has not been always easy, but nowadays there is no doubt that students are not just another stakeholder but a co-responsible partner in higher education. And thus, there is no discussion in Europe about higher education where legitimate student representatives are not taking part. The situation is not perfect yet, of course not, but we have gone through a long path already.
This space for raising the concerns of students has allowed ESU to bring to the table the discussions on the social dimension of higher education, the students’ support, the paradigm shift towards student-centred learning, the still remaining challenges to mobility or the recognition issues, among others.

4.    What are the greatest issues national students’ unions are dealing with and how are they being tackled?

Europe is big and diverse, and so are the problems affecting students in the different countries. In some, it is still about the basic rights to freedom of speech, freedom to organise or to be recognised as a legitimate partner being able to participate in the decision-making. Other countries are struggling with austerity measures, cuts on the financial support for students, increased tuition fees and less and worst student support services. In other countries governments want to introduce tuition fees for international students, threatening the rights of those students but also decreasing the quality of education of their own students who are losing the opportunity of being exposed to the international experience.
ESU, as an umbrella organisation has to represent all those students, with diverse concerns and demands, at European level, but also to support our members in their fights for a better education in their countries.

5.    How do you see future collaboration with ESU’s key partners (e.g. new European Commission, Council of Europe, Bologna Follow-up Group etc)

ESU is here to represent, defend and strengthen students’ rights. We are diverse, democratic and open-minded trying to bring in courageous and smart ideas. This is not always easy, as it is very challenging when you also have diverse partners with very different interests and agendas.
I like to describe ESU as a critical friend. Anybody who wants to improve the sustainability, quality and accessibility of higher education is very welcome by us, but it doesn’t mean that we will always agree with each other. I guess this is the case of the European Commission, the Council of Europe or UNESCO, we are working together very closely and having a great collaboration, but of course we have issues where we are not on the same page. However, this doesn’t stop us from continuing working for our policies. With the Bologna Follow-Up Group the dynamics are very interesting, as we are also members, and each country representative has different priorities; the challenge now is to give back the political relevance to the Bologna Process, making a positive impact on the lives of the grassroots students.
Of course, we should not forget to mention other stakeholders’ organisations we collaborate very closely with. They all have a very valuable input to make that we have to listen to and we should, of course, ally for the common goals.

6.    What are the benefits of being a member of ESU?

Being a member of ESU is a symbiotic relationship, where we both benefit immensely. But for this to happen we have to be very careful of some principles such as democracy or legitimacy.
We have two types of members: national unions of students as full-members and European student organisations as associate members. Our members are student-run, autonomous, representative and operate according to democratic principles; the are also open to all students regardless of political persuasion, religion, ethnic or cultural origin, sexual orientation or social standing. The strength of our organisation relies in our members, as this is how we can be recognised as the legitimate voice of the students in Europe.
The main benefit of being a member of ESU is access to information and direct influence to European policy-making in education and students’ related issues, which is basically impossible if you are a single union in a very specific country. The opportunity to exchange information, share points of view and good practices with a network of students coming from 38 countries. Get support and capacity building for your own organisation. Not to forget the chance of participating in different projects at European level, with the support of different international institutions.

7.    You have some experience with ESU as vice-chair and member of the executive committee. What are your plans for ESU during your mandate as chairperson?

Sometimes at European level organisations risk to forget who they are really serving. I want ESU to have always in mind the grassroots students, those who are facing constant challenges in their campuses. We have to give the right tools to the national and local students’ union to perform their work and represent, defend and strengthen students’ rights at European level in the most effective way. By the end of the mandate I would like to see ESU with a higher presence and relevance at European level, and especially in Brussels. ESU should push and work together with policy-makers and other stakeholders to ensure that the European initiatives are implemented at the local and national levels, making sure they have a positive impact on students’ lives. This is a clear challenge after the recently adopted Yerevan Communiqué or when the EU is going to revise its Education and Training strategy for 2020.
Student-Centred Learning is the key word for my mandate. ESU needs to lead the way for a paradigm shift in the campuses, making sure that the students’ needs are taken into account and adequately addressed, that there is no student left out of education and we make use of the best tools and technologies to educate our citizens, both the young generations and the mature students. This needs to lead to adequate recognition among countries to keep alive a real European Higher Education Area.
Moreover, ESU will continue bringing to the attention one of the pillars of education: learning to live together. Europe had to learn the hard way that we have neglected this aspect too much in favour of a very narrow and close-minded definition of employability. Europe needs promote and value again active citizenship, intercultural understanding and human rights education.

8.    How does a typical day at ESU look like? Why do you like working at ESU?

This is not easy to explain, as it doesn’t look at all like the days at the national or local students’ union. ESU is a relatively small organisation for all the activities it carries out. We have an office in Brussels where we have our Secretariat with great and dedicated staff members that support the elected representatives in our work. The chair and vice-chairs are based in Brussels and work, together with the secretariat, for the management of the organisation, but our main role is to follow what is happening at European level in the field of education, making sure that the students’ voice is heard and taken into account. That means a lot of meetings, not only in Brussels, and sometimes even outside of Europe. We are members of Bologna Follow-Up Group and of different experts’ groups of the European Union, the Council of Europe and UNESCO, which means a lot of work on preparing our contributions in order to give relevant and valuable input. We also carry out projects and studies with very specific goals where the elected representatives of ESU are in charge of the political and content part. Another very important part of the life in ESU is our General Assemblies, as this is where the representatives of ESU are elected and held accountable, where we discuss and approve our priorities and plan of work, and where our members shape our policy documents.
I love working in ESU very much; it is a vibrant and dynamic organisation, full of ideas and great people who care a lot about the students in Europe, are very dedicated and have a deep understanding of European initiatives and how to influence them. However, ESU is at the same time very demanding, but I would not be able to gain otherwise all the things I am learning in ESU and the experience I having.

9.    What is your advice for student activists across Europe?

Don’t give up! Sometimes it is not always easy to drive change or to make a clear impact, in most of the cases what we do needs some time to lead to clear results.  Also, this work is not very rewarding as most of what you do will benefit another generation of students. This could be very frustrating and even demotivating. So, it is key to stop every now and then, take a breath, and be reminded of whom we are doing this for and why. There is not a single former student activist that claims that this is not totally worthy.
Not everybody has the chance to change the world we live in. So, keep going, be drivers of change you would like to see and don’t give up! Never.

Many thanks for your time!
You are very welcome!


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