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Students make their mark on the WCHE

‘At no time in history has it been more important to invest in higher education.’  This was the strong and unequivocal message emanating from global higher education leaders at the UNESCO World Conference held in Paris earlier this month. In a clear illustration of the strength of the student voice, this statement is just one of a series of major step forwards made by the conference as a result of the work of ESU and student platforms across the world.

The communiqué, issued by UNESCO as the conference organisers, on 8 July, provides the overarching position statement of the conference and sets out the agreed framework and objectives for higher education at a global level in the coming years.

Crucially, the communiqué clearly stresses the place of higher education as ‘a public good and a strategic imperative’, and adds that, ‘higher education must be a matter of responsibility and economic support of all governments.’  This recognition comes at a critical time for the sector, with a series of threats to higher education funding in the face of the current economic crisis, and the ever-increasing advancement of the privatisation/marketisation agenda. The need for member states’ not to waiver in their financing of higher education is a recurrent theme, and is accorded extra weight through a specific call for action to ‘maintain, and if possible, increase investment in higher education in order to sustain quality and equity at all times.’

Another breakthrough resides in the recognition given to access, equity and quality as interlinking objectives of primary importance, with an understanding that, ‘the objective must be successful participation and completion, while at the same time assuring student welfare,’ including ‘…appropriate financial and educational support to those from poor and marginalised communities.’  Member states are called upon to, ‘encourage women’s access,’ as well as ‘guarantee equal access to under-represented groups.’  The communiqué also takes the first tentative steps towards a full embrace of student-centred learning by calling upon governments to develop, ‘more flexible entry pathways and assure better recognition of prior learning and work experience.’ In this way, the communiqué marks a move away from a view of higher education as merely an economic tool for creating the workforce of the future, and towards an appreciation of higher education’s intrinsic value, stating that higher education institutions should, ‘increase their interdisciplinary focus and promote critical thinking and active citizenship’.

The acknowledgement of the need for student participation in academic life marks the third major area of progress at the WCHE.  The communiqué clearly states that, ‘students should be given a voice in the governance of higher education at all levels’ with a call for member states to ensure active student participation, as well as to safeguard freedom of expression and the right of organisation, and to provide adequate student services.  And this in spite of the reluctance of some countries to accept students as equal partners – a fact reflected in, and made all the more important by, the continued breaches of student rights witnessed in countries from all continents.

These achievements are attributable in part to the prominent role played by ESU in the build-up to, and delivery of, the WCHE, namely through shaping the event as a member of the WCHE+10 Programme committee, speaking alongside key actors on the opening Stakeholder’s panel and representing the student platforms in the drafting group of the communiqué.

ESU’s contribution also came in facilitating the build-up of a collective voice for the global student movement, both through a preparatory meeting in January 2009 and a follow-up event immediately after the conference close.  These meetings resulted in an agreement to create a global student dialogue platform – a major stride forward in creating a stronger student movement and a more coherent student voice at international level.

The litmus test will now be member states’ willingness to give UNESCO the role and resources it needs to coordinate higher education in the global arena, while fully committing themselves to the objectives set out in this once-in-a-decade event.  If the words of the communiqué are to leave the paper on which they are written, all of those involved in the WCHE need to commit themselves fully to implementing the concrete actions contained within it.  ESU will be playing its part in the months and years ahead to ensure the legacy of the WCHE is found not in the declarations it made, but in the changes it delivered to the student reality of higher education.


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