Statement on Measures Regarding Students and Higher Education in the Countries of Southeastern Europe
This statement is supported by the European Students’ Union (ESU), the Croatian Student Council (CSC), the Students’ Parliament of the University of Montenegro (SPUM), the Slovenian Student Union (SSU), the Students Conference of Serbian Universities (SKONUS), Student Union of Serbia (SUS), the Students’ Union Republic of Srpska (SURS), the National Assembly of Students’ Councils in Bulgaria (NASC) and the National Alliance of Student Organisations in Romania (ANOSR).
Respected governments and higher education institutions in Southeastern Europe (SEE), encouraged by the poor measures that are set in place after the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic regarding the students and higher education in general, we stand united in proposing the measures to benefit all the students currently living in SEE. We are aware of the economic situations of the SEE countries, but the students are one of the most vulnerable members of the society we need to protect and assure the continuation of their studies in a manner that will benefit not only them, but the higher education institutions (HEI) as well.
One of the measures our countries are struggling most with, regarding the implementation, is the use of e-learning methods in assuring the continuation of education. After years of implementation of e-learning into the HEIs’ Plans of Work and assuring us that these methods are widely used by the committees for quality assurance (QA), our fears have become the truth. The methods are underdeveloped, they differ among the institutions and the competences of the teaching staff in e-learning implementation do not always assure the use of the e-learning system. Some of the HEIs have decided to transfer the competences students were to acquire this academic year into the next academic year, leaving students at home without the possibility to develop their knowledge or to study with the least amount of obstacles. Having said that, it is critical we take the right steps to assure that our higher education systems remain operative even in these hard times.
It is our feeling that our higher education systems have failed to protect its students and we do not want to allow this to go too far. We, as students, feel ready to implement the possible solutions to assure the functioning of the HE system, and we feel our voices are not being heard enough.
Hence, we are detailing measures we want all our governments to consider as priorities and to put forward to assure the continuation of higher education in these times. These measures apply equally to all students, regardless of their study level (undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate) or status within the resident country’s HE system (includes students on mobilities within foreign countries, students who returned to their domicile country but study on foreign universities etc.).
1. Students’ diet, accommodation and transportation
- Assuring students from low socio-economic background rights on meals free of charge (or subsidised), three times a day, by identification using students’ ID cards. Assuring all other students rights on subsidized meals three times a day, by identification using students’ ID cards.
- Assuring all the students their rights on using student accommodation and facilities, by identification using students’ ID cards, until 31 days after the measures of protection against pandemic are lifted.
- Assuring subsidies for private accommodation for students, until 31 days after the measures of protection against pandemic are lifted.
- Safety should be more prioritized in all students’ accommodation and diet facilities. Instead of giving out recommendations, we want regulations to be set to assure the safety and health of all students, by having to disinfect all public surfaces in student accommodations at least two times a week, in the restaurants at least two times a day, and to limit the total number of students that can be in restaurants, while maintaining proper distance.
- Subsidies for damages to the property of students made during repurposing of the students’ facilities as quarantines should be introduced by the provider of the service for the students. Damages should be demonstrated by the students using photographic or testimonial evidence.
- Introduce free transportation for students who want to return to their domicile country during the pandemic.
- Introduce free public transportation for 31 days after the measures regarding pandemic are lifted, so that students could return to the place of their study as fast as possible and resume their studies with the least amount of difficulties.
- Allowing free passes for all students to the other regions within their countries if their travel is needed due to work or other obligations.
2. Health care of the students
- Assuring free health care for all students upon presenting valid student’s ID card.
- Opening students’ infirmaries more often during the week and introduction of call duty for health practitioners in these facilities during the weekends.
3. Mental health and physical wellbeing of students
- Opening a daily phone line for mental counselling for students, in order to preserve their mental stability and provide a safe space for them to express their concerns, thoughts and insecurities, especially now.
- Introducing classes of physical education for all the students after the measures of protection against pandemic are lifted, in the duration of three months, to recover physical strength, endurance, and mental wellbeing.
4. Economic measures
- Continuation of scholarship and financial aid payments during the pandemic, in full amounts, to all the students that receive them.
- Introduction of subsidies for students who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, regardless of their contract type, if they have received constant payments within 3 months prior to the introduction of pandemic protective measures.
- Continuation of full payments of postgraduate students’ wages employed at HEIs, regardless of their contract type.
- Lowering study costs and the costs of the ECTS points proportional to the reduction of the expense that the HEIs generally endure, per student, for the organization of classes and daily activities within the educational system. This measure should be applied to all HEIs, and for all students who would attend classes during the pandemic (students who have, prior to the pandemic, put their studies to hold, or are not attending lectures in any form are excluded), regardless of whom finances their studies (public or private funds).
- Delaying all payments or part of the payments of the students’ services provided by the HEIs or separate bodies that provide these services (for example, student centers, students’ restaurants etc.) at least up to 45 days after the pandemic. For example, if a student stays in a dorm, and his monthly rent is 100 euros, the student would be able to delay the payment (or pay the rent partially) until the pandemic is over and the student can afford again to pay for the services.
- Better options for student loans should be introduced, which are more flexible and offer zero to minimal interest on the loans, in order to preserve the number of students at HEIs and to assure the students can live with necessities during the pandemic. It is strongly encouraged that the loans are issued by the HEIs to their own students.
- Introduction of subsidies for pregnant students, student parents, students who are part of different care systems (students with disabilities, students who have lost both parents etc.) without a steady income.
5. Teaching & learning quality assurance
- Assuring that e-learning is implemented at HEI level in a unified form, and that e-learning is not an election activity implemented at the will of an individual professor.
- Assuring that the e-learning outcomes and obtainable competences remain as closely as possible to the ones set prior to the pandemic.
- Establishing an e-learning support system and/or online tutorials for the teaching staff to assure that all who implement e-learning have the same access to information and implement all the possible elements.
- Adjustment of the e-learning models to the students with disabilities or students with decreased or no possibilities of using e-learning systems.
- Assuring the availability of the literature and learning sources for the students during the library lockdowns caused by the pandemic, prevention of using the pirate systems for accessing the learning sources and the support of usage of open- access literature sources.
- Making sure that the experimental research of the students within the scientific fields of HEI institutions suffer least amount of possible damage to the students’ work and studies completion by allowing their current research continuation by creating comparative or theoretical research equally recognized for the studies completion due to force majeure.
- Internet security of all students’ data and personal information while attending online classes and after, needs to be a top priority for all providers of the online lessons. HEIs should educate their students on how to protect themselves and their information from threats.
- Implementation of fair and learner-centred assessment and examination methods which will ensure that the students meet the intended learning outcomes (due to present cases of dishonesty of institutions in filling out the assessment forms, as well as their limitations in organising online classes and evaluations).
6. Assuring equal conditions for all students
- All students should, during force majeure, have the same and equal conditions regardless of their place or type of studies, and governments should make efforts to assure those conditions are met.
- Students whose processes of mobility or students’ practices have begun, should attend all classes online at the HEIs they have chosen for their activities, regardless of their residing country or the domicile country, and they should keep their rights on mobility funding for the stated period.
- Students must not be forced to leave the country they are residing in to return to their domicile countries if they do not state so or do not agree with it, and the governments should not make arrangements that will allow involuntary transit of the students.
7. Measures of long-term progress
- All governments who do not have the legislation regarding force majeure have to make sure they start the process of creating such documents to create security and stability for the society if there be need in the future. The lack of these measures led to slow and improper responsiveness to the unexpected situation causing confusion and panic in the society. National Unions of Students should help in the creation of these national policies to assure that all students are represented and taken care of in these situations due to their specialties and the vulnerability of these members of the society.
- Evaluation of the e-learning usage, development and implementation should be done to improve the systems we have now and to develop new systems which will offer a unique, safe and uniformed access to all students within a country/ countries.
- Future subsidies, concourses, public calls and all other forms of calls that rank students based on their excellence, status or other criteria should exclude all the criteria the call is addressing during the period of pandemic in which student was attending classes, to allow the same possibilities of applying to all the students, regardless of the unique measures each class, faculty, or HEI has put in place due to lack of uniformed measures.
- Introducing special gratitude measures for all students who have bravely contributed to the needs of the society (either voluntary or those who were drafted) during the proclamation of force majeure, and risked their life even though their education is not completed yet.
- Introducing additional supportive measures for student-run businesses, start-ups or other entrepreneurial student-led projects or establishments.
Finally, we agree on the matters stated in the European Students’ Union “COVID-19 Position Paper. A multidimensional crisis that affects us all”, however, we believe that we cannot wait any longer for the introduction of the measures mentioned above. Student movements are endangered and the focus of HEIs and their ministries has shifted from higher education to the global pandemic crisis. Even though we can understand this, we still need to remember why those institutions are here and what their primary goals should be.
National Unions of Students are more than willing to engage in planning and the execution of the above-stated measures, and we want to be allowed to perform our duties even in these hard times. We are prepared to make sacrifices in our time and the activities we have planned to make sure our students would not have to make sacrifices in their studies, work or life.
We urge you to assure these measures are brought and implemented so we could assure the same quality of the higher education students receive, hence creating a stable, optimistic and knowledgeable society.