2008 Policy Paper “Excellence”

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ESU— European Student’s Union has existed since 1982 to promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level, and towards all relevant organizations and institutions. ESU currently has 49 member organizations from 38 countries.



In 2000 the European Union, through the Lisbon strategy, were setting the aims of becoming ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’. In the centre of this strategy, is the reformation of the Higher Education area, by encouraging and shaping changes in the legislation in order to give higher education institutions the conditions to fully achieve ‘excellence’ in education and attract the most talented students and researchers. This is done by creating change in the access policy to Higher Education Institutions and fostering increased competition between Higher Education Institutions and students. The Lisbon strategy thus focuses on limited amount of economically rewarding aspects of Higher Education instead of overall improving Higher Education. An approach ESU fundamentally opposes. Furthermore, the Lisbon strategy is aiming to reach growth and improvement of the quality through competition. ESU is concerned about these developments and believes that a open knowledge-based society will not be established with this concept of excellence. Therefore ESU reaffirms the core principles that have to be respected in any reform related to the improvement of the quality of Higher Education.


Cooperation instead of competition and commodification

Increasing the resources for both institutions and students shape the minimal conditions in which a knowledge based society can develop. As an approach cooperation should be the basis for development of institutions and students. Internationalisation of higher education has given many opportunities to foster this approach. Special attention has to be put on increasing mobility and sharing of knowledge not only within the European Higher Education Area, but also with Higher Education Institutions outside this area. ESU strongly opposes efforts undertaken by European countries to gather more highly skilled workforce from developing countries thus causing brain drain in regions in which all the brains are needed.  However, it is propagated by the European Union that excellence can only be achieved through stronger competition. By forcing through certain market paradigms in which universities should compete for resources, develop business strategies and select the talent they want to educate, the European Union tries to develop higher education landscape to its maximum potential. ESU regards this road to excellence as disastrous for the European higher education landscape and to the development of improved quality for all. ESU opposes these tendencies of commodification of higher education and reaffirms, that education serves several purposes in societies, the most important ones being its role as a means for social development and democratic empowerment, means of gaining and sharing knowledge as well as a means for personal growth and well-being.


Core principles:

  • Cooperation instead of competition is the basis for development of higher education institutions and students
  • ESU opposes the idea that excellence can only be achieved by competition and the commodification of Higher Education


Distribution of resources, which is facilitating homogenous development instead of stratification.

There is a trend in European Higher Education policy to concentrate financial resources on the most talented students and researchers resulting in special programs for the ‘most talented’ and stronger competition between researchers. This trend opposes the aim of a knowledge based society and is harmful for equity in Higher Education. It reinforces inequality in education systems, which favour individuals from socio-economic and socio-cultural affluent families. Instead the overall amount of resources should be increased in order to facilitate good Higher Education for all, giving all students the same opportunities. Another development linked to this is the concentration of human resources. ESU believes that each student should be able to enjoy individual attention, respect and guidance from high quality professors.

ESU reaffirms the freedom of HEI to develop different profiles, based on different programme portfolios and on particular fields of study. However this should never lead to typology, separating research and teaching.


Core principles: 

  • ESU is against the development of so-called ‘elite’ programs that have more financial or human resources, and focus on a small number of individuals that are considered talents.


Improving the Quality of Higher education

Improving the quality of higher education is a continuing process, which should take place in cooperation between all stakeholders in Higher Education including students. Students experience education on a daily basis and are thus an important source for the improvement of the quality of their education. Quality assurance agencies are showing us if the minimal requirements for higher educations are achieved, but this should be seen as a minimal requirement rather than the desired aim. In addition, a quality assurance system should guarantee the minimal requirements, as they are the basis to improve the quality of all higher education. ESU acknowledges that students participate in Higher Education for different reasons and thus have different expectations and needs. This should be reflected in a more inter- and multidisciplinary approach to education, and an opportunity for students to obtain skills, competences and knowledge in the fields that fit their own purpose. Every student should have the possibility to follow their own ambition within the HE system”.


There is strong evidence that student’s educational attainment is strongly influenced by their cultural and socio-economic background. Thus advocating selection procedures which are supposed to concentrate resources on the more talented students is in itself a policy which opposes the principal of social mobility and a decrease of equity in higher education. Moreover, considering that students peers are a major source of learning, and a way to improve equality in higher education, separating different levels of perceived talents must be avoided. School and higher education systems which are separating students with ‘supposedly’ different level of abilities are, in fact, leading to a lack of flexibility and to students from lower socio-economic background getting in the lower levels courses. Rather, each student should be able to enjoy individual attention, respect and guidance from their teachers in a diversified context. In this light, ESU is against the development of so-called ‘elite’ programmes and excellence centres, which focus on a small number of individuals and institutions that are considered talents or of high quality.


Core principles:

  • ESU stresses all Higher Education Institutions have to be of high quality
  • developed through inclusion of all internal stakeholders in a continuing process.
  • Higher Educations should give students the possibilities to create their own learning path which should match  their own needs and purposes
  • Every students should have the possibility to completely exploit their own intellectual potential without being limited by restrictive learning programs
  • ESU is against any educational system which separates different levels of perceived talents within Higher Education.


Transparent information instead of ranking and typology

In a knowledge society, it is crucial that the institutions provide high quality and easy accessible information in many different languages regarding the learning outcomes, didactic and aims of the educational programs to aid students’ choice and thereby create transparency in Higher education systems and education in Europe. This is a pre-requisite for students to make a qualified choice for an institution based on their own preferences and needs. However ranking systems have been set up , which have been considered to play an important factor in gaining recognition of a higher education institution’s reputation and attracting the best talents in the world and not to inform students. Rankings push governments to implement policies aimed at letting universities excel on a small set of indicators used in the rankings. Ranking systems can be developed in a way which is gainful mainly to its developers (country or group of countries), in this way decreasing opportunities for countries which are less advanced in international education politics. ESU believes the multiple purposes of higher education cannot and should not be simplified with either general quantitative or qualitative indicators as exemplified in ranking systems or as is done in aims of a typology of higher education institutions. There is, in fact, a growing tendency towards dividing higher education institutions into two or three different typologies namely research institutions, teaching institutions and institutions balancing both aspects.

Also modern information systems are too often designed in a way which enables ranking of Higher Education institutions. Surveys carried out under students, presenting a generalised student opinion on their institution also falls in the definition of ranking and are in principle different from sustainable quality assurance and institutional evaluations, which can also deliver valuable information for students to make a qualified choice. Rankings thus in principle do not acknowledge cultural diversity and holistic interpretations of the purpose of education systems.


Core principles:

  • ESU opposes rankings of higher education institutions, faculties or programs in principle.
  • ESU also disagrees with a typology of higher education institutions.
  • The information obtained from rankings is not appropriate to implement policies and copy higher education models from abroad.
  • Information systems should be set up, in which the diversity and multiple purposes of higher education are acknowledged so it can become an useful tool for student choice.
  • ESU stresses the importance of having a strong link between teaching and the research works as a main condition to ensure high quality education for all.



The term ‘excellence’ is often used as an empty phrase meaning a small elite of students or institutions that are the best in the world. This emptiness is realised when we look at how this talent is identified and which purposes higher education institutions follow. Rankings, playing an important part in the debate of excellence also show this emptiness, by using universal, often quantitative indicators to judge which higher education institution is the best. The increased pressure of creating elitism in higher education through commodification, creation of ‘centres of excellence’ like the European Institute of Technology, ranking of institutions, are hindering the creation of the knowledge-based society, by focusing on the few, rather than focusing on all students. ESU disagrees with actors viewing excellence as developed in a small elite that have access to most resources. Instead the focus should be on encompassing all students to let them reach their maximum potential. ESU regards the road towards elitism as disastrous for the European higher education landscape and stresses instead the development of high quality education, accessible for all.


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