2006 Policy Paper “The Students’ Opinion on the Lisbon Strategy of the European Union”

Share it:


ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe has existed since 1982 to promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level, and towards all relevant organisations and institutions. ESIB currently has 45 member organisations from 34 countries.


At the European Council Meeting in March 2000, the Member States of the European Union set an ambitious goal for the EU: To become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010, capable of sustainable economic growth and greater social cohesion. This so called Lisbon Strategy treats higher education as a central means: Higher education systems should produce marketable research results and employable individuals in order to boost European economy. The Lisbon Strategy thus affects European students to a considerable extent. The students of Europe therefore have a qualified interest in having a say in this Strategy. With this paper, ESIB reaffirms core principles that have to be respected in any reform related to higher education and addresses the actual and potential effects of the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy in higher education.


General remarks on the Lisbon Strategy


Social objectives within the Lisbon Strategy
ESIB notes that the follow-up and implementation of the Lisbon Strategy have focused far more on eliminating barriers to trade and improving economic growth rather than directly addressing some of the most important elements of the process, namely sustainability, more and better jobs, welfare state and social objectives. We conclude that the lack of commitment to those concepts and values is a political decision. ESIB rejects arguments that are solely based on the “natural forces” of economic necessities. We think that political programmes and reforms can – and have to – follow the commonly agreed values in a society. A definition of “European values” without doubt should include democracy, justice, tolerance, solidarity, social mobility and equality. When modernising the political and economic system in Europe, the term “modernisation” must not be abused to implement reforms that work against those above mentioned values. Instead, policies should be designed to build upon what societies and movements in Europe have been and still are fighting for. ESIB therefore stresses that the main objective of the Lisbon Strategy must not be reduced to a purely economic goal, but that the social objectives it already encompasses must be truly put at the heart of the process and form its main priority.

The Open Method of Coordination
Within the Lisbon Strategy, the EU established the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) as a new method of policy making, based on applying economic management techniques to public governance. For several reasons, ESIB is concerned about this new way of policy making. Obviously, the OMC is needed in order to include also parts of policy in the work towards the Lisbon goals that are not within the competency of the EU according to the EC Treaty, such as education. We do see the need to stick to the defined legal framework in its real meaning. We would like to point out, that – although not legally – the EU practically is clearly overstressing its competencies.

The blurry structure of policy making makes it difficult to find out where policies are rooted, and where responsibilities are located: The policies are outlined and proposed on a European level, while the concrete creation and implementation of the reforms happens on the national level. This allows EU institutions to point at national governments when problems arise, while national governments can refer to the EU when pushing forward unfavourable reforms. ESIB fears that through this behaviour, which is inherent in the OMC, democratic structures are overruled, and the responsible policy makers sneak out of their responsibility to fully argue what they are doing – both towards the public, and towards stakeholders and NGOs. As the shaping of policies and their evaluation within the OMC is based on indicators and benchmarks, numbers are a central point of reference. ESIB is very concerned that political concepts that can hardly be translated into numbers, such as academic freedom, student participation or personal development and creativity, are left aside by the method as such.


Higher Education within the Lisbon Strategy

ESIB welcomes the intensified discussion on higher education on the European level. We are very aware of the benefits that an international approach brings to our education systems and societies as a whole in solving similar problems and challenges that exist in our education systems, as well as overcoming national barriers – be they physical or mental. In those discussions, however, we think that the broad range of purposes that education serves in societies have to build the basis of any further considerations: The most important ones being the role of education as a means for social development and democratic empowerment, as a means of accumulating and sharing knowledge, of economic competitiveness, as well as a means for personal growth and well-being.
The students of Europe don’t often find these multiple roles reflected in policies deriving from the Lisbon Objectives. Furthermore, on the European level, established structures of student involvement don’t yet exist, which brings about the danger of leaving aside the student voice when developing European higher education policies. We therefore see the necessity to define the opportunities and threats more clearly so as to see and experience in the impact that the Lisbon Strategy has on our higher education systems.


Opportunities for our education systems

Coherent European approach
ESIB welcomes a coordinated European approach for the development of our societies. We agree with the principles of sustainable development, coherence and comprehensiveness. We furthermore agree that in this approach higher education should take a central role in the design of policies. Higher education should continue to be seen as a central element in shaping future society and therefore experience considerable and continued investment on both the national and the European level.

Autonomy and academic freedom
In the process of transformation to a knowledge economy, higher education institutions are faced with a diversification of their mission. External expectations and internal steering organization in higher education institutions are undergoing changes, which are reflected in the models of internal governance of higher education institutions and external legislation, suggested by the Lisbon Strategy.

ESIB supports the model of governance of higher education institutions, in which they are accountable to serve external expectations, and autonomous enough to put the goals of their mission into practice. Such a model of governance of higher education institutions must focus on the public responsibility of higher education and its link with the challenges and demands of society, as well as a real inclusion of students in the decision making process.

Making the best use of resources
One of the major goals of the Lisbon Strategy is to raise the quality and effectiveness of European education and training systems. The students of Europe agree that making the best use of existing resources is a crucial element in improving our higher education systems. ESIB therefore supports the efforts to achieve the goal of effectiveness of European education systems. However, we are very concerned about a political culture in which efficiency – measured in terms of input and output – turns to become the goal of policy making, instead of a means for achieving the purposes of higher education. ESIB points out that the latter must be the central aim in reforming our higher education systems, and strongly opposes a political culture that mainly focuses on playing with numbers.

Measures towards inclusion
ESIB fully supports the idea of lifelong learning as a means for involving more people of different age and from different backgrounds into higher education. ESIB welcomes efforts by the European institutions to raise attention to inequalities in higher education and increase the inclusiveness of higher education systems. Still, we are aware that a lot has to be done yet to achieve this goal.

Emphasis on Innovation
The emphasis that the Lisbon Strategy places on innovation opens the opportunity for education that is truly transformative rather than reproductive. Conditions must be established to enable students to develop their full potential, rather than being oppressed by a lack of political and academic imagination and invention.
ESIB remains a strong proponent of student-centric learning, while constantly insisting on high quality, up-to-date education. Continual innovation is an excellent way to achieve this. ESIB therefore welcomes the introduction of a culture of innovation. Innovation does not only happen in the field of research, but can bring benefits to all other fields of education systems, particularly when applied to increasing the quality of teaching and learning systems. ESIB welcomes this new approach as a tool to really improving our education systems.


Threats for our higher education systems

Focus on marketable results
Economic strategies are strongly affecting higher education when it comes to demands of skilled labour force and research results. ESIB is strongly concerned about a system in which the marketability of a subject determines the focus that is put on this subject when it comes to financing and organisational priorities. Not only do we see a violation of the purposes of education in this approach. We would furthermore like to point out that leaving aside non marketable and humanistic subjects ignores the overall purpose of economic growth and sustainable development, which we see in greater equality, self-fulfilment and quality of life. Academic freedom includes the guarantee for a financial basis to perform high quality teaching and research, as well as accurate information, also on issues that are not of interest to the economic performance of a state. Governments have to secure this academic freedom instead of endangering it with the hunt for economic goals – be they short-term or long-term.

Excellence and elite
The Lisbon Strategy promotes political reforms that put higher education institutions in competition for financial resources, for the “best” students, teachers and researchers, and that strive for establishing elitist institutions. Instead of providing for well-balanced development all over Europe, this approach creates and expands the gap between different higher education institutions. Those who benefit are high-ranking higher education institutions with international prestige and a sustainable financial basis. Those who lose are underfinanced institutions that will have to cut down on teachers, research projects, and on the long run experience heavy losses in the quality of education.

ESIB strives for a broad, tight and well developed network of high quality higher education institutions all over the continent. Therefore, national and European governments have to guarantee sufficient financial and administrative basis for all institutions alike, no matter which places they reach in international rankings, and no matter which region they are rooted in.

ESIB furthermore stresses its rejection to political concepts that want to create a „knowledge elite“. Those concepts strengthen socio-economic and cultural elites in our societies. Instead of reproducing those elites, we see the task of modern governments in creating a system that allows for equity of all citizens.

Introduction of tuition fees
Within the Lisbon Strategy, the introduction of tuition fees is frequently suggested to national governments by the European Commission. This is argued with three points: That tuition fees provide an extra financial resource to close the funding gap; that they would create an extra factor of student motivation and raise the quality of higher education; and that they would, combined with student support schemes, create greater social equity among the students. ESIB stresses that the provision of free and accessible higher education lies within the responsibility of the state. Higher education that is accessible according to one’s desire to learn, rather than one’s ability to pay, becomes threatened, when the problem of lack of funds is addressed by such measures.

ESIB firmly states that the introduction of tuition fees with the intention of disciplining students by burdening them financially is not worth any serious consideration. Financial troubles do not motivate students to study, but rather keep them from being able to focus on learning, discussing and developing knowledge, or from taking up higher education at all. ESIB furthermore points out that the idea of creating greater equity among students by charging tuition fees obviously fails its target for the above mentioned reasons.

Changing grant systems into loan systems
Tuition free education systems alone are of course not a guarantee for free and equal access yet, but have to be accompanied by adequate student support systems. As those support systems are being reformed, we are observing a trend to change grant systems into loan systems. ESIB strongly criticises these tendencies. Loan systems put students in a situation where they have to face huge piles of debts once they finished their education. This threat is not at all a
motivation to start studying, but can keep especially students from lower socio-economic classes from taking up higher education. ESIB reaffirms its stand that education is not a marketable good to be acquired in exchange for money, but a fundamental human right. We strongly oppose any form of charging money for attending higher education, be it up front or ex post.

Jeopardising autonomy
Autonomy of higher education institutions is one of the major buzzwords used in higher education reforms within the Lisbon Strategy. While our definition of autonomy is a guarantee of academic freedom, the meaning of this term within the policies deriving from the Lisbon Strategy mainly encompasses the duty of higher education institutions to acquire their own financial resources. ESIB is very concerned about the effects this will have on the academic freedom of
higher education institutions. Private sources expect something in return for giving money to those institutions. This return can take several forms: A mandate in the steering body of the institution, intellectual property rights over research results, or direct influence on the curricula and teaching utilities used in the
respective higher education institution. ESIB is in favour of a stronger contribution from industry to higher education, be it through financing, internships or other forms of support. We insist, that this contribution must happen in a way that does not in any way influence the independence, academic freedom and mission of the respective higher education institutions.

We are furthermore concerned about developments that deal with the distribution of public funds on the basis of management by objectives. The criteria used are often based on mainly economic considerations, which forces higher education institutions to concentrate on reaching those criteria rather than focusing on their actual mission.

Lisbon as argumentation for unpopular and short-sighted policies
Many countries already implemented reforms in higher education and more reforms are expected to be suggested to governments by the EU. However, narrow policy suggestions, without broad consideration of social implications, will not serve to reach the goals of the Lisbon Strategy. Instead, governments are provided with a basis for legitimising short-sighted measures in order to fill budget holes or deprive democratic structures of their power within higher education systems.

ESIB is highly concerned about this manner of policy making and stresses that national governments must not abuse the “call from Brussels” for student-hostile reforms. ESIB perceives it as the responsibility of the EU to closely follow the national implementation processes of Lisbon in higher education in order to avoid an abuse of policy suggestions for such purposes.


Further demands for policy on higher education within Lisbon

ESIB is firm in its conviction that education is a public responsibility
Education must not be used for making profit. This has to be reflected not only in the regulation of the education sector, but also in the public provision of higher education. Higher education institutions should response to societal needs and publicly agreed visions and ideas. In order to fulfil those tasks, higher education systems need to act on a sustainable, long-term and healthy basis. Considering the central role of higher education institutions and their importance for our societies, states have to guarantee that higher education is safeguarded from being abused by the intention of making profit, and that it is not exposed to market effects.

Stronger efforts towards access and equity
In our current societies, education is the main precondition for social mobility. Social cohesion and equity are therefore strongly linked to the social inclusiveness of our education systems. It is a core mission of these systems not to reproduce or create social inequalities, but instead to take their responsibility for a socially just system serious and increase efforts to reach this aim. Ensuring equity is strongly connected to the issue of financing higher education, especially to the system of financing students. ESIB is alerted about the rhetorics of presenting tuition fees as a means to reach equality, as argued by recent EU publications. Serious efforts to increase the social inclusiveness of higher education must instead include stronger financial support for students with a special focus on students from lower socio-economic classes and underrepresented groups. Factors like gender, ethnic background, skin colour, disability, regional disparities and others have to be included in designing the profile of financial support and affirmative action. When it comes to systems of lifelong learning, ESIB stresses that they must be free and equally accessibly by all.

ESIB urges the European Commission, national governments and higher education institutions to implement effective measures for widening access and increasing equity. Financial support measures have to be strengthened together with affirmative action such as financial incentives, outreach programs, improvements in admission practices, quotas or positive discrimination in favour of underrepresented groups.

Stronger involvement of students
As opposed to most national systems, there exist no formalised and established structures for student involvement on the Eurpoean level. While education is being more and more dealt with on the European level, so far the inclusion of students in discussions and decision making did either not happen at all, or it depended on the good-will of the respective policy makers. ESIB reaffirms that high quality development of education policies can only happen when the ones concerned – the students – are intensively involved in all steps of the process. We see the urgent need to establish and formalise a system of strong and real student involvement, including participation in decision making.

So far, policy making within the Lisbon Strategy showed low commitment to the principle of participatory democracy, including all stakeholders of the respective field. When designing policies for the education sector, the first ones to include must be students, education institutions, education workers and school students. ESIB believes that legitimacy and quality of reforms can only be achieved with involvement of all internal and consultation of all external stakeholders.

Free knowledge in a real knowledge society
Higher education institutions play a key role in the creation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge. They are of central importance when trying to realise a knowledge-based society. However, the use of patents and other regulations of intellectual property limit the free accessibility of knowledge. ESIB stands firm in its position that knowledge must be open, free and easily accessible to all. Instead of limiting those opportunities, ESIB regards it as a central responsibility of governments to support the establishment of open knowledge structures, amongst other by making use of the new possibilities of information and communication technologies and the internet. Such efforts would bring us closer to a real knowledge society.

Deal carefully with external effects
The Lisbon Strategy can have a negative impact on “developing” and “least developed” countries and regions, amongst other through initiatives from the EU to drain skilled labour force from other parts of the world. ESIB believes that the principle of solidarity should form the basis of the organization of our societies. The main beneficiaries of this principle must be the poorest people, countries and regions in the world. Furthermore, high priority must be given to supporting our neighbours. The Lisbon Strategy should benefit the whole European continent, rather than just the Member States of the European Union, in order to avoid unbalanced development in social and economic terms.

Develop a long-term vision for the development of higher education
Strong higher education systems are the key to creating a knowledge society. In order to achieve this aim, the role of higher education institutions has to be defined broader than just providing competent labour force, tools for innovation and enabling the European Union to become a leader in the global economy.
ESIB calls upon the EU to look beyond the 2010-deadline and to develop such a long-term vision for higher education, based on the multiple roles and purposes that education fulfils in a society. This vision has to be developed together with students, higher education institutions representatives and education workers.



ESIB appreciates the fact that a broad and concerted strategy is the main driver of reforms in the current Europe. However, we are aware that the core and the goal of this strategy are of economic nature, and that most of the reforms being proposed have a managerial and marketised character. We are convinced that this approach is not appropriate when it comes to higher education. Furthermore, we notice that the social objectives of the Lisbon Strategy are not prioritised, partly even forgotten or neglected. Students, as well as other stakeholders, can not rest on any basis of formalised inclusion mechanisms, but instead depend on the good-will of policy makers. We are convinced that the function of government structures is not only to ensure sustainable economic growth and hunt for economic benchmarks, but to organise society based on values such as solidarity, equity and cooperation. ESIB therefore calls upon the EU and the national governments to develop the Lisbon Strategy further and adjust it to these principles. Concerning higher education, the strategy should focus on the responsibility of higher education to society, and not limit its role to that of a tool for competitiveness in a globalised economy.


Adopted at ESIB’s 51st Board Meeting in Paris, France, December 2006


We make sure you
don't miss any news
Skip to content