1999 Policy Paper “Extended Access to Qualified Higher Education”
ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe has existed since 1982 to promote educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at a European level, and towards all relevant organizations and institutions. ESIB currently has 37 member organizations from 31 countries. Through its member National Unions of Students, ESIB represents more than six million students – the majority of the students in Europe.
ESIB is an important stakeholder in higher education (HE) since it builds on democratically elected national unions of students, who are relevant in shaping their national HE policies. Therefore, we believe it is our duty to express our opinions on significant questions concerning students and education. The question of access to HE has always been a fundamental issue for students in Europe and the rest of the world. The promotion of equal access to HE for all is enshrined in the primary objectives of ESIB. In light of recent developments of access, it is felt that ESIB must address the matter in order that HE institutions (HEI) avail of the new opportunities and avoid the new threats.
New providers have provoked several recent developments in the educational field. These new providers include institutions using new ways of teaching and learning – for example the Internet – as well as new educational institutions, both profit and social profit.
Established institutions are also providing new services of education. They have widened the range of education. Similarly, increasing international mobility allows students and lecturers a wider horizon of knowledge and personal development.
The increasing number of educational providers incites a competitive element. Students, institutions and governments now face difficult policy choices and are looking for an appropriate response.
This policy paper describes the common policy of European students towards these new providers and the state’s role in addressing it. For this, the paper draws from on existing ESIB policy, and specifically on the ESIB Policy Statement on Access to Higher Education and on the policy paper New Tools for Changing Goals – Educating for the Information Society.
Access for all
Education is a human right. Thus everybody must have free access to HE. By free access, it is understood that everybody has the opportunity to enter HEIs regardless of political belief, nationality, religion, ethnic or cultural origin, gender, sexual orientation, social standing or any disability they may have. Everyone must also have the right to life long learning, everybody must have access, and just as for every other form of HE, it is a basic and indisputable right. The European Community Memorandum on Higher Education emphasises the political need to ‘achieve equal opportunities regarding the access to all
forms of education.’ Access is not simply providing entry to HE but also about completing studies.
There are still obstacles to free access to HE in European Countries, for example fees, unreasonably difficult examinations after the first year, numerous clauses, family background, entrance exams after qualifying education, entrance degrees, compulsory practical experience, study subjects connected to the secondary school courses, availability of the internet. Many of the obstacles are financial, so it is necessary to solve this problem. Access to HE should be based on ability to learn and not the ability to pay.
Social and cultural difficulties play a major part and need to be tackled, for example, discrimination against minorities.
In order not to harm quality, public resources should be increased in response to the broadening of access. The government, state bodies and the institutions are responsible for HE, and the quality of HE that is provided. That means that they have to ensure the quality of the education that they are providing. Students in developed HEIs contribute to the quality of the institutions.
The rise of new providers promotes the competition between providers of HE throughout the world. States must be aware of their responsibility in this area, and must be taking this into account when financing HE institutions. Governments must be aware that the rise of private and non-funded institutions, such as company owned ‘corporate universities’, does not relieve them of their responsibility in providing education. Subsidised HE is needed, and its quality has to be assured, because admission to courses offered by new providers is not always guaranteed.
Governments have the responsibility to identify new providers of HE and see if they fulfil the basic requirements. Through international co-operation and the government or state bodies can share information by the establishment of a common database. Through evaluation, quality assurance and official accreditation the government can monitor and regulate the educational system and make it more transparent. By accreditation the institution is entitled to award degrees officially recognised by the state. Evaluation and accreditation make it easier for students to navigate in the jungle of HE and also protects them from questionable providers. Unaccredited institutions can be valuable to society, but should not be able to issue official degrees. Nonetheless, there will be ‘gaps’ to be filled by these institutions, such as specialised staff training in companies. The focus is on skills rather than on degrees.
When defining the criteria for accreditation and quality assurance, the national student union concerned must take part. When evaluating new providers students at that particular institution must be involved and given the opportunity to contribute. Moreover in all HEIs, students ought to be in a position to contribute to the upgrading of quality in their institutions. The evaluation of a HEI must be student centred, for example the HEI must include its students in quality control and must have student guidance. This evaluation must not be a ranking, but a public evaluation without making comparisons:
the criteria for this evaluation must be national, regional as well as internationally based, with consideration for the different expectations and visions stated by different educators.
Students in recognised distance learning institutions and private HEIs must be given the same status and benefits as other students and therefore have the same right to student financing systems, whether it be student grants or loans. The same applies if students have any special right in health care, tax reductions or special discounts etc.
HEIs need to improve their information policies. Both HEIs and the state must offer independent information through institutions on the local and national level, which gather all the information about the HEIs and make it available to all students and people who want to enter HEIs. These institutions should issue publications on the HEIs where the specific developments, programmes and specialised fields of research of the HEIs are promoted. Thus, it would be easier for them to attract students with concrete offers.
These information institutions should co-operate on an international level, according to results of the evaluations done in the countries and respecting the diversity of the different systems of HE. This will facilitate the mobility of students from all over the world as well as enhancing mobility.
Co-operation between experts from the corporate world and the HEIs concerning the education of learners must be made possible and even stimulated by the government, but it must also be controlled: lecturers from the professional world could add to the quality of the course. The institutions have extensive knowledge on the fundamental and applied aspect of science, while professionals from the corporate world are experts on the practical aspect of science. The responsibility for this education however must always be with an accredited HEI, under the supervision of the government.
Students encourage international co-operation and the recent founding of a network of national accreditation bodies is a direct response to this. Through co-operating student mobility can be increased. Students encourage international co-operation and the recent founding of a network of national quality assurance agencies is a direct response to this. Through co-operation student mobility can be increased.
The distant campus
In modern education, students and lecturers now have the opportunity of studying abroad and of making use of distance learning. Problems exist for students in both of these fields and measures have to be taken.
The rights available to the student nationally must be available regardless of where they choose to study. All financial support structures available for students must be mobile, regardless of the location of the study, or programme of exchange. Funding for exchange, duration of the programmes and the scope of the programmes themselves must be extended in order to properly encourage mobility. Similarly, the promotion of the European Credit Transfer System and the Diploma Supplement should be conducted by the state. The state is responsible for supporting students living costs. Furthermore the state has a responsibility to promote more reciprocal bilateral agreements between different universities and other countries to ensure the continuance of mobility in Europe.
All this provision for further mobility is notwithstanding the states’ responsibility to strive to provide the highest quality education for all the residents of the country.
However, if the sending states are financially unable to provide students with health services, the receiving country has to ensure the health care of the students.
There is need for a comprehensive International Affairs Office (IAO) in all HEIs that are fully incorporated in the daily educational affairs of the institutions. These offices would be required to deal with international students – students on exchange programmes and non-native diploma students. An IAO must serve as a centre for the development of study agreements, institutional bilateral agreements, and also be fully aware of current European policy, research and reports. Similarly, it would be expected that the IAO would be responsible for the distribution of information materials relating to the institution, locality, language, etc. and the provision of a language and culture training course. IAOs must operate in consultation with student organisations, and avail of their
resources and expertise. It should also be the responsibility of the student organisation to ensure that any international students are fully integrated into their organisation, as well as into the student life of the college.
The HEI has a responsibility to ensure that international students are housed within easy access of its facilities. Integrated accommodation is preferable to the creation of an artificial and separate international students community in accommodation specifically allocated for them. Where such provisions are available, it is preferable that student purpose accommodation be offered to international students as an option at a nondiscriminatory fashion. It would be advisable that in such cases, the expertise of the students’ union be brought to bear on the issue. It is envisaged that such assistance would be financially compensated by the IAO.
There must be no restrictions on any students on the basis of being a holder of an International Study Visa. Therefore, it is desirable that international students have the option to seek and pursue part-time employment. The same rules and rights must apply for all students. The creation of work agencies can potentially help this situation.
It must be expected that the sending state will establish and promote health provisions where applicable for the added security and safety of the international student population.
International exchange students should seek health insurance prior to arrival in the country. The health centres of the HEIs must be fully accessible to international students studying there.
Students must also have the opportunity to belong to the broader international HE community without having to travel abroad. Technological developments are making possible new methods of learning and enhancing distance learning, they are in fact creating virtual universities. To study at a distance learning institution is not the same as studying at a traditional institution (HEI), but it is a method to overcome certain barriers which prevent individuals from obtaining a HE.
Open and distance learning (ODL) institutions are partially or wholly using multimedia such as video and Internet or even printed material for educating their learners. It should be used a way of educating those who do not get the chance at present, such as inhabitants of distance regions, (future) participants of second chance education. For the basic HE it must be regarded as a valuable supplemental tool rather than a replacement. ODL allows ‘cut-to-fit’ education, responding to different learners who have different needs, both in the content of their course curriculum and in the way that it is delivered.
Used properly, it can be a tool to allow equal access for groups which are currently marginalized by HE.
Education is a basic human right. We need to identify and tackle any obstacles to this right. We must also note the responsibility of the government to identify the trends and developments and react to them. The time has arrived for the state to consider the evaluation of such providers and this process should include the student body. Cooperation within the HE is vital, responsibility for providing accredited HE is an honour that the state must not distribute lightly. Expertise in this matter must be shared across international boundaries, as today these boundaries are being eroded through the profileration of mobility programmes and the wider access to open and distance learning.
The rights of the students in each country must be extended and protected to allow for this mobility of education. International Affairs Offices in association with the student associations must cater for this. The same rights and rules, such as study financing, must apply for all students, regardless of studies, methods of studies or international boundaries. Open and distance learning and international mobility will be of paramount important in this matter. The true development of this is could prove to be a benefit to the field of HE. While extended access can enhance the opportunities of many, it is in need of close regulation and further development.
It is the responsibility of the government authorities to ensure that they evolve and develop themselves in symphony with the rest of the HE sector. Governments must ensure that the development of the traditional HE sector is not at the expense of the existing system. New providers can increase access to HE. They are adding to the diversity of provision of education. Nonetheless, new opportunities can mean new dangers, and society must be vigilant.