2002 Policy Paper “Student visions on a common Europe”

23.03.2011
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Preamble

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 organisations and institutions. ESIB currently has 41 full member organisations in 37 countries.

The vision of a common and inclusive Europe is a foundation for ESIB’s policies.

ESIB welcomes the ongoing discussion on the future of Europe, and will take an active part in this discussion. ESIB believes that sustainability, representativity,
inclusion, integration and democracy should be the hallmarks of the development of a common European future.

 

Introduction

Discussions about the future of Europe has its recent historical roots in the post World War II reconstruction and development of a common community. New challenges are facing the continent after the fall of the Iron Curtain and on the road to a common Europe. The development over the last ten years has resulted in some very positive results, but old problems and conflicts have resurfaced and new problems are arising or becoming more and more visible.

Students are affected by the process of European integration both as citizens – members of society in general, and as students. As members of civil society, they influence the process through this civil society. As students, they share certain specific needs and aspirations; thus, students have a particular interest in shaping the future of Europe.

ESIB asserts the important role played by students in orchestrating the future of a common Europe. ESIB hopes that such a future will be rooted in accepted democratic principles that are universally transferable, and believes that sustainable and representative forms of governance for the future must be found. ESIB calls for the development of a future Europe characterised by respect for and emphasis on the diversity of the geographical and cultural area that is Europe, a development that is based on integration and inclusion.

 

Civil society

The importance of civil society for a people centred development of the European future is asserted by ESIB. In this context, the importance of autonomy of higher education and the importance of academic freedom are stressed specifically.

Civil Society is that autonomous part of society that people are involved in and looks after people. It provides the life blood of liberty: its creative chaos of associations gives people the chance to live their lives freely. Civil society is composed of nongovernmental organisations, voluntary associations and social movements. This provides a mechanism for meeting needs not provided for by the state. Individuals are the building blocks of Civil society that provide the support for Civil society organisations. They are the essence of Civil society. The Civil society sector is not isolated from the state government but should not be dependent on government decisions.

It is the role of Civil society to raise the awareness of individual and societal rights. Civil society can be looked at as a level of awareness of peoples rights and freedoms and is involved in the conservation of all kinds of human rights and human activities.

 

Basic Principles for future governance

Democracy has long been a concept protected by students and student organisations and while it must be acknowledged that students do not form a singular, unified and homogenous group, they have often united around the defence and promotion of democratic values.

In keeping with this tradition of democracy the student vision of the common Europe is of a common cultural or geographical entity, the governance of which is
characterised by an adherence to certain basic principles of democracy. These are basic principles which are universally applicable to regional, national and
international practices of governance.

Such structures ought to ensure that Governance is for and by the people. Citizenship must be an inclusive term. The rule of law must be upheld and the judiciary must remain completely independent of external influences. The positions of power within structures of governance must be based upon elections held in a fair, free and open manner. Decisions taken by such elected persons must be done so in a transparent manner. Elected persons must be accountable for their decisions and actions.

Structures of Governance must provide and protect basic rights and freedoms. People must have the right of expression and peaceful assembly, a right that must be guaranteed even if these are expressions of dissent. The security of those engaged in such activities must not be compromised.

Participants in governance ought to engage fully in that process. It is their responsibility to ensure that their voice is heard. It is also the responsibility of those
elected power holders to ensure that structures are in place through which participants’ voices can be heard. These concerns must be afforded positive reflection and a commitment to action. All individuals have a responsibility to all other members of the constructed state to uphold their basic human rights. People ought not engage in activities which will knowingly impact negatively upon the rights of others The ability to access wide ranging and encompassing information is a basic principle of governance. The plurality of the media is to be guaranteed by law. All participants should attempt to use a variety of methods when dispensing information. Students in particular welcome the opportunities that Information Technology provides for expanding the transfer of information; however, it must not be forgotten that some technology remains within the exclusive grasp of a minority within society.

Therefore, the focus on other forms of knowledge transfer must be deepened. Students are committed to the idea of an involved and integrated Europe based on the above understandings. They advance a people centred vision, that creates the space for students, taking advantage of their dual role as students and citizens, to develop to their full potential.

Drawing on experience gained as participants within civil society, a commitment to the central tenets of democracy and the specific awareness as members of the higher education community, students call for a future Europe, EU and non-EU that takes its guidance from the positive structural aspects of a project such as the Bologna Process.

Students recognise in this process, a democratic and open system of integration that can operate without singular dependence on the European Union, yet can incorporate countries within the Union. ESIB feels that this structure offers a model for cooperation between independent countries both in relation to the area of higher education and in a more general sense for the future of Europe. Europe could take the initiative to develop such models of sustainable internationalisation.

 

The future role of education and autonomy of higher education institutions

Education is aimed towards full personal development and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also promotes the culture and understanding of active, critical and constructive participation. Education shall promote understanding, tolerance, respect and friendship among all nations, ethnic or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. Education facilitates more effective participation in a society and people’s ability to form an opinion of their own. It also facilitates persons to contribute to the quality of the society and to fight all forms of discrimination in society.

Education is an important part of Civil Society but the Civil Society is not the only sector of society that benefits from education. It is aimed towards the society and the individual actors. It ought to be looked at as a tool for promoting ideas, visions and opinions that the overall society and individuals can benefit from. It is the overall society that has the obligation to provide individuals with education.

Education plays an important role in shaping the future of Europe as a region and of the societies within Europe. The Bologna process has a great influence on European higher education. Many European countries are reforming their HE systems in light of the Bologna declaration. However, some of these reforms are not in the best interest of students – even though students should be the main beneficiaries of the Bologna process. Many issues remain unresolved, such as the question of quality assurance and the introduction of a credit transfer system.

Autonomy is a development process and impacts all sections of the higher education community. It can be looked at from various perspectives that are all internally linked. Autonomy of the academic sector is a tool to protect the right to freedom of expression and it is important that all views can be raised. When autonomy is absent it affects the ability of the individual to develop his or her individual ideas and views.

Autonomy provides important links between education and civil society. Without autonomy the benefit to society of the diversity of methods and content of education and research will be lost. The level of autonomy we know today might not be guaranteed tomorrow.

Higher education institutions must have a certain level of autonomy from the state, from other actors of governance and from the economic market. In particular
financing of educational activities should not be used as a tool to undermine educational autonomy. In connection to the state this relationship should be balanced where the decision making is in the hands of the higher education institutions’ bodies of governance. Higher education institutions should not be regulated to promote state principles. Other actors of governance and stakeholders, e.g. non-governmental organisations, voluntary associations and social movements can have strong political influences. They can affect the autonomy of higher education institutions from the side.

The relationship between governmental bodies of higher education institutions and faculties and departments should be interactive. This relationship depends on the decision making structure and can therefore vary between higher education institutions and between countries. The relationship should be based on supporting cooperation and there should be a funding balance within a higher education institution between its faculties and departments. Mutually agreed principles should be formed for all different actors in higher education. ESIB encourages co-operation between and within faculties and higher education institutions on national and international level and advises that interaction between autonomous parties takes place within a structure of respect and understanding.

Students and academic staff are the most important actors in HE. Academic staff ought to be provided with freedom of expression and should be able to raise their views and opinions without fearing that it might affect their position and career.

Security of tenure in particular has a direct relationship to academic freedom. Job insecurity may represent a threat to freedom of expression in many institutions.

The relationship between students and higher education institutions should be autonomous. Active participation in decision making processes should be encouraged and facilitated. Representatives of teaching staff and student representatives should be active participants at all levels of decision making processes. In doing so they will consistently engage with the other actors of governance. It is important that this happens at an even level. Training in active participation is important in order to give individuals the opportunity of becoming more active in the decision making. Students and teaching staff need other skills besides content. Therefore support ought to be given from the HEI and the student representative body.

Academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions is a mode of governance for the higher education sector, and should not be seen as lack of governance or disinterest from society. Rather, it is an active choice of governance to insure that higher education can assume its responsibilities towards civil society. The quality of education within all educational institutions will benefit from this. ESIB firmly believes that this can provide an adaptable model for truly effective and autonomous governance in other sectors.

 

Mind the Gap

Lack of autonomy and academic freedom has served to widen the gap between higher education institutions East and West. The problems are not simply related to lack of academic freedom. However many of the principles of autonomy have been absent.

This has impacted on the higher education arena, specificly but has also contributed to other socio-economic problems.

The gap between the East and the West of Europe blocks the way to integration. The gap is generated by differences in living standards, political stability, the level of development of civil society and substantial differences in Higher Education Systems.

The integration is hindered by brain drain, unequal opportunities of mobility, problems with recognition of qualifications and the lack of information flow which
arise from the gap.

Brain drain occurs within countries with students and workers often leaving the rural areas hoping for a better opportunity in the economic centres. However the biggest problem is the large migration of experts from the East to the West of Europe that diminishes the possibility of innovation and stands in the way of East, Central and South-East Europe (ECSE) towards future prosperity. Brain drain is also enhanced by the somewhat unrealistic expectations of the people from the East. Some countries establish systems of organised brain drain that gives very little in return to the other country and literally buys off trained labour.

There are several possible ways to tackle the problem of brain drain, such as the information and awareness raising about brain drain (especially organised brain drain). ESIB does believe that the increase of participation in mobility programmes can lead to a more realistic view of the situation across Europe. Encouraging best practices in the region raises awareness about domestic possibilities. Students Unions and higher education institutions should exercise their role of informing students about projects and programmes in order to provide for full individual development. Networking and Civil Society Projects should be funded by different international programmes.

The mobility programmes set by the EU did not succeed to reach the whole of ECSE Europe. This is mainly because of the EU centred approach. Not all countries became part of the programmes and low grants make it difficult for students from poorer backgrounds to go on exchange. All this leads to the conclusion that the mobility programmes have somewhat disregarded the quality of the exchange in favour of raising quantity. The EU is not the only one to blame for the above stated situation. A part of the responsibility rests on the side of the ECSE countries, for example when it comes to setting up courses in English and ones of domestic languages.

Unequal participation in EU mobility programmes could be addressed by opening up to more countries. Setting minimum standards for monthly grants and for quality would move towards a more balanced participation. A solidarity fund should be created for the ECSE countries in order to guarantee these minimum levels. The programmes should open to more extensive movement throughout Europe without limitations. The increase of information flow should be facilitated by bilateral promotion of higher education, the increase of the number of the programme promoters and by the expansion of electronic networks for easy access to information along with higher education institutions partnerships to keep the information flow going. Double and joint degrees should be created and should have an emphasis on the diversity. The establishment of crash courses and summer language schools could have vital importance for the solution of the problem.

The problems in recognising qualifications exist mostly because of different approaches in higher education systems, quality assurance and accreditation systems.

They are usually not well established, balanced or in absence of responsible autonomy. The communication between higher education institutions inside and
outside the countries does not always reach a satisfying level of quality.

The ECSE countries should implement comparable systems and raise attractiveness to enhance mobility and recognition from the west. Balanced systems of quality
assurance and accreditation have to be established to improve quality and raise confidence in the Higher Education systems. In addition governments should work to remove administrative barriers which very often limit student mobility in general and also the choices of destination country in particular.

The lack of information is a problem that worsens the effect of the gap in both directions. The EU countries lack information on Higher Education and Social
Security systems in ECSE countries and on the other hand the ECSE countries lack information on EU processes. Improving information should begin in Secondary Schools with information packages and printed material. The promotion of exchange programmes could be helped by students with first hand experience through seminars and promotional events.

The solution to the problems stated may not erase the gap completely but will surely work to narrow it. Moving in that direction will make way towards a common Europe without boundaries, enriched by cultural differences and open for the free movement of all people. However we have to be aware that Europe as a whole is increasing the gap between itself and the global south. ESIB believes that this is an issue that is of utmost importance and should be taken into consideration at all times.

 

A Democratic Future

It is important that students and student representatives promote and protect institutional autonomy. Activities that are not specific to protecting autonomy do
however play a relational role. For this reason it is important that students engage in raising their opinion at a wider societal level.

Students and student representatives should raise public awareness about the importance of HE and about the autonomy of the HE sector. Active participation of students in Civil Society should not only be concerned with official decision making.

Student representatives do have to acknowledge their own responsibility, both towards the HE sector and towards the society in general. They have to motivate their fellow students and raise awareness among them that they have the responsibility of being active citizens. Just as student organisations demand that Higher Educational, regional and national Institutions be governed according to agreed democratic principles, Student Organisations themselves must be guided by democratic principles.

Students envisage a future Europe characterised by national and international institutions that adhere to basic democratic principles. Specifically they envisage
Higher Education Institutions that are democratic in structure and afford Student Organisations full access to decision making processes and treat them as equal partners in the higher education process.

True democratic governance will, in time, move Europe away from the image of a fortress, as it is perceived today, and towards a wide-open and unprejudiced entity.

Sustainability, representativity, inclusion, integration and democracy will be the hallmarks of the development of a common European future.

 

BM 42, Debe, Poland, May, 13th-19th 2002

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