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Students call for global ombudsperson for student rights

They came from Australia, Africa, North America, Asia and Europe.  For the first time in five years, 17 organisations representing students across the globe came together in Paris last week at an official preparatory conference for the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE), scheduled for July 2009.  The conclusion of the meeting: student rights are violated all across the globe, and student bodies now want UNESCO to set up a global ombuds office that deals with breaches of student rights.

The WCHE 2009 is a follow-up both to the first one held in 1998 and to the Meeting of Higher Education Partners in 2003.  However, while student organisations have been given a place at the conference table as a key stakeholder, no provision had been made for these organisations to meet separately in order to collaborate on their specific areas of interest and develop a common approach to the WCHE.  Last week’s meeting was therefore the result of an initiative by the European Students’ Union (ESU) through its International Cooperation Working Group (ICWG), which is run by member organisations VSS-UNES-USU (Switzerland) and NSU (Norway).  The goal was to fill this gap in international student cooperation, in collaboration with partners UNESCO and Education International.

The meeting resulted in the Global Student Statement on Higher Education which provides a unique, unified student perspective on the higher education challenges that need to be met in the coming years.   Crucially, the Statement will enable the global student movement to speak with one voice at the WCHE, and will provide a clear and coherent set of messages for policy and decision makers to consider.

The key elements of the Statement are as follows:

  • That full investment in a higher education system for all, not for the few, is a vital tool for long-term economic, social and environmental stability.  It is, quite simply, a pinnacle of sustainable development.
  • For this reason, higher education must be made a policy priority and a fundamental right for all.
  • Accessibility and quality must be the watchwords for global higher education and delivered hand-in-hand.
  • Efforts to increase enrolment and accessibility must be matched by commitments to enable students to complete their studies through the provision of adequate support measures that are adapted to the needs of the individual learner.
  • Visa procedures need to be simplified and made more flexible to facilitate mobility and information exchanges.
  • A better and more transparent mechanism for qualification recognition must be developed as a matter of priority, so that students are not discouraged from going abroad by a fear of their learning in that country not counting fully towards their studies.
  • Greater measures should be put in place to enshrine and protect student rights, including an international ombudsperson for students.
  • It is vital for students to be seen as partners in all national and international policy making forum.
  • Student-centred learning must become the definition of the way higher education learning is delivered.
  • Action is required to ensure that higher education is a tool for the elimination of all forms of discrimination and does not in any way reproduce existing systemic inequalities.
  • UNESCO should play a major role in global higher education debates and should act as a facilitator of dialogue among the global student community.

The Statement was accompanied by a second major achievement of the meeting: the fostering of greater international cooperation among student organisations.  With the student movement having lacked a strong, coherent and global voice in recent years, last week’s meeting was equally significant in affirming a new commitment to much closer cooperation among the different regional platforms and sectoral organisations in the future.  And with ESU’s Plan of Work for 2009 centering around the creation of ‘A stronger student movement’, this development marks a major step forward in achieving the overarching goal for this year.

The full text of the Global Student Statement can be found here.


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