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The Future of Education and Training Through Student Eyes

Introduction: Organization of the process

Before we shape the contour of the future priorities of Education and training 2010 we would like to share our main concern about the process itself and the way it is organized, excluding the main stakeholders in higher education from shaping the future of higher education in the EU:

The definition of members and partners in the education and training 2010 work program are distinctly different from the Bologna process. In the Lisbon strategy, the definition of stakeholders is limited to social partners and national governments, in the Bologna Process it is the representative organisations of the stakeholders in the field, plus the national governments and the European Commission. The Bologna Process is thus far more democratic and based on negotiation and joint development among the stakeholders. The concept of social partners, which is used for the composition of the working groups of education and training 2010, does not apply to the education sector. A better concept for the composition of these working groups is the concept of stakeholders. The stakeholder principle recognises that although all actors within the Higher Education system work towards the same goal, they do so from radically different perspectives and life experiences. This leads to the conclusion that, besides the social partners, the institutions and students should also be included in the working groups. The limited inclusion of stakeholders creates a problem of ownership. The stakeholders are not only the ones who know the Higher Education field, but they will also be responsible for the practical implementation in the higher education institutions. Thus ownership over the suggested reforms is vital for their proper implementation.

I Cooperation rather then competition to achieve excellence

1.1. Excellence as development of homogenous quality education

The term “excellence” can be misleading in its use. A question arising is “Are we trying to achieve excellent Higher Education or are we going to concentrate our resources only on students considered as gifted?”. While the former will have a positive effect on all students and development of coherent education system across Europe, the second will create a distinction between groups of students. 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. Given the fact that the student population is not homogeneous, flexibility in study paths is crucial for giving every student the possibility to find a challenge in his Education. However, 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 creating social inequalities in terms of further opportunities of separated students.1.2. Cooperation as the basic principle promoted to facilitate higher education development in Europe.
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. To create the necessary breathing ground for innovation it is necessary to promote an interdisciplinary approach in education as well as research. Although this interdisciplinary approach can be achieved within one higher education institution, the cooperation between institutions in the form of networks for teaching and research can give this approach an extra impulse. The European Unions should financially encourage the creation of this kind of networks.
Competition in the field of knowledge development and application necessarily implies that new information is hidden from competitors, at least partly and temporarily, and thus hinders the fruitful free exchange and development of knowledge. ESU stresses that knowledge should be created and used to serve societal aims and that the spirit of cooperation should guide the development of knowledge and innovation. In this respect, ESU stresses the importance of ensuring support for such independent research, which is in interest of our societies. These are of public interest and should not be jeopardised by the trend of increasing competition in higher education. Furthermore, ESU calls for the establishment of a European instrument for the sharing of knowledge and research freely between all relevant actors, while at the same time respecting their respective intellectual property rights.

1.3. Mobility as the main instrument for successful cooperation – more support is needed!
Internationalisation of higher education has given many opportunities to foster cooperative approach in higher education. Special attention has to be put on increasing mobility and sharing of knowledge. Student mobility is arguably one of the largest drivers of change in Higher Education in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Within the European Union, by far the largest action for community cooperation in the field of education has been within the field of mobility, through landmark programmes such as Erasmus and Tempus. Within the wider Europe, the now maturing Bologna Process aims to create a European Higher Education Area in which students and staff should be able to move freely between countries and institutions. Though surveys show a great interest in studying abroad, the amount of European students studying in foreign countries is still marginal. The joint coordination of degrees, curricula, qualifications frameworks, quality assurance and recognition practices are all part of this process towards mobility. However, majority of students will never be able to experience study abroad without the necessary financial compensation. The next generation of mobility grant schemes need to develop to accommodate for two major deficiencies. Firstly, the total amount of money available to go abroad has to increase to cover both fees and variable living costs in the host country. Secondly, grant schemes need to expand beyond the borders of the European Union towards the now 49 Bologna countries so the European project can expand. Together with this effort, special student procedures for student-visa need to be implemented.
Most importantly, despite over 20 years of effort being put into student exchange, the overall level of student mobility remains in the single digit percentages. To push things forward, a new and ambitious target is required, and for this reason ESU proposes that the EU should set its’ mobility target to 20% of students and staff mobile by the year 2020.

II Equity in higher education

2.1. Focusing on all levels of education!
The further expansion of Higher Education is of crucial importance for the success of the growth and jobs strategy. The effects of globalization continue to confront the citizens of Europe with a shift towards a more unsecured labour market and the loss of less academically based jobs. Education should help those people that are confronted by the negative effects of globalisation to adapt to such changes by teaching them the necessary competences to integrating into the labour market. ESU sees education as a tool for promoting social mobility by means of combating and preventing unemployment not only for the youth, but for all citizens.

To avoid social inequities that are reproduced in higher education, higher education systems should improve the equity and access for those groups who, due to educational disadvantages caused by personal, social, cultural or economic circumstances, need particular support to fulfil their educational potential, such as early school leavers, the long-term unemployed, migrants, women of all ages and people with disabilities and people from low socio-economic backgrounds.
The European Students Union acknowledge the importance of previous levels of education in fighting inequalities, at the same time stressing, that if not positive action taken and necessary support for students ensured, higher education might even deepen already existing inequalities as well as create new ones for potentially secured groups of students. The problem of high drop-out rates can only be solved by an integrated approach of primary, secondary and higher education. Public intervention should not be focused on one of those sectors but should guarantee a strong an integrated education sector instead. In this spirit the concept of dropouts from various segments of the LLL pathway might serve to be more useful than current methods of measuring the problem.

2.2. Comprehensive research on costsharing policies and their implications on equity is needed
Looking at the higher education sector, there are several problems concerning high drop-out rates. Particularly, the financial situation of students and the quality of their education are areas that deserve attention in this respect. Students are taking up work to cover their living costs. The majority of students’ jobs are not linked to the subject of studies, which results in increased workload for students, affecting negatively the quality of their studies. Without the necessary support, they end up below the poverty line, compromising their time and energy to study. Another strong contributor to high drop-out rates is lack of inspiring teaching methods as well as study organization which is incompatible with current lifestyle of students created by high demands the society brings on their lifes.
Recent studies like for example the study “Public/private funding of higher education: a social balance” of the Hochschul-informations-system have proven that information concerning financial obstacles and financial discrimination can be gathered. Moreover, it proves that by studying all aspects of public and private contributions in comprehensive way, including costs of public social services and different students’ study related costs, the new facts arise about students’ support systems in different countries, which are conflicting with the cost sharing principle that current EU’s equity and efficiency policy is based on. It also confirms that in many countries state support systems do not serve their goal to support students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The European Students Union urges EU to continue to research existing inequalities and possible solutions to fight them, and base its equity and efficiency policy, taking into account all aspects of equity and by ensuring that this policy does not have any negative affect on any group of students.

2.3. Indicator and benchmark for equity in higher education – less words and more action!
To really prove EU’s willingness to improve equity in higher education, a work should be done to develop a set of indicators and benchmarks on access, participation in and completion of higher education to improve participation of under-represented groups, while improving their social, academic and financial realities. The European Students’ Union strongly encourage the European minister to give a higher priority to problems concerning equity and to make this part of the strategic framework for European co operation in education and training by introducing a compound indicator on equity under the follow up of the Education and Training 2010 Programme.

III Sustainability

3.1. Looking at social returns from higher education long term
Apart from globalisation, Europe is also challenged by demographic changes which will lead to a smaller proportion of young people in most of European societies. This challenge is strongly effecting our economies and should thus been taken serious in every aspect of the Lisbon strategy. A decrease in the workforce will create a considerable challenge to the education sector. To remain a strong and vital economy it will be even more important to increase participation of a larger proportion of the young citizens. Numerous researches have shown the positive relationship between higher education graduates and economic growth. Due to globalisation the necessity for a high educated workforce will be even more crucial that it was in the past. This means that if Europe wants to build up a strong and sustainable economy, widening access to higher education should be priority number one.

3.2. Active citizenship, democracy and intercultural understanding – at the heart of higher education
A crucial aspect of sustainability is active citizenship and democracy. In order to sustain and increase those futures of society, education is of key importance. Education allows citizens to be more sensitive to the democratic spirit. This contribution of higher education to civic responsibility and democracy is not self-evident and should never be taken for granted. Higher Education should not only provide the labour market with highly skilled workers, but should also provide the society with active democratic citizens. Demographic changes will confront Europe with a decreasing workforce, which will lead to new discussions about migration of workforce from regions which are not confronted by a decrease in workforce. The current discussions about immigrants in many European counties are worrying in this respect. Nationalist and conservative parties acquire more influence, hand in hand with xenophobia, Islamophobia and intolerance. The rise of extremist political parties across Western Europe, as well as the anti-gay movement in Eastern Europe are real threats to the European social and cultural values as well as the increasing need to allow new immigrants to work in Europe. In this respect, the European Students’ Unions is happy with the EU’s initiative to devote year 2008 to intercultural dialogue, but realises that this will not on itself result in a different environment. Xenophobia and cheap political rhetoric against immigrants need to be battled within and by the higher education sector. Degrees should be built on the principles of personal development and responsibility, cultural and interdisciplinary understanding in the form of generic learning outcomes.

3.3. Addressing sustainability issues in higher education
Higher education should set the example for a sustainable society by saving and using renewable energy, using environmental friendly material, cutting waste and increasing the use and accessibility of public transport. Secondly, ESU in its survey has found that cultural, societal and ethical dimensions are not part of our curricula, threatening the ability of our citizens to deal with complex problems such as sustainability. Both more generic and more ethical skills should be included in the learning outcomes of our degrees and qualifications frameworks, including those on the European level. Moreover ESU believes that the academic community should be stimulated to become more active in debates concerning social cohesion and sustainability actively speaking up against populist lies concerning for example immigration and global warming.

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Download ESU’s Contribution Table here


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