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A glimpse of students in Europe today

Friday 20 May 2011 Global Justice

George Charonis, a representative of the Academic Affairs Committee of the European Students’ Union (ESU),  looks at the issues affecting students across Europe today. How do they differ from the struggles facing UK students?

Cuts to public funding, soaring levels of student debt, and record-high graduate unemployment rates are shaping the landscape of Higher Education across Europe today, with decreasing influence from students on Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), policy-makers and politicians.

Funding and finance

One of the key issues – if not the central issue – facing students and HE in Europe today is undoubtedly funding and financing, not least as a result of the economic crisis.

Public funding of HE is increasingly placed under scrutiny and threatened, from the introduction of tuition fees for international students in Sweden to an increased student contribution of up to £9000 per year for undergraduate studies in the UK.

With decreased public funding HEIs are pushed to ‘do more with less’ and diversify income streams. There is an emerging shift of HEIs towards business-like, managerial structures with one example being the increased inclusion of external stakeholders and actors in senior governing bodies. Whilst including external stakeholders bears certain advantages, for example in removing the image of HEIs as isolated from greater society and fostering valuable links and partnerships, it also has certain drawbacks. With increasing focus placed on other stakeholders students are increasingly marginalised, limiting their ability to influence key decisions, leading to a dilution of the student voice. In Romania where students previously held 25% of the vote in electing Rectors, or HEI leaders, recent national legislation has reduced this to between 5% and 8%.

Widening participation

Although remarkable progress has been made with regards to student participation in other areas such as that of Quality Assurance and Enhancement, tokenistic student participation is still widespread. Despite being one of the key actors in HE, students are still the minority in arguably some of the most important discussions and decisions, such as those surrounding financing and staff recruitment.

Emerging trends in funding of tertiary education are also leading to fewer grants in exchange for more loan schemes. Students from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are already severely underrepresented in HE and such trends are very likely to further widen the gap.

Students have united in the past to ensure that access to HE is prioritised across Europe, leading to European Ministers stating in 2007 that ‘the student body entering, participating in and completing HE at all levels should reflect the diversity of our populations’. Furthermore, a minimum target of 40% tertiary educational attainment for persons aged 30 to 34 by 2020 has been set across the European Union. Despite these developments, national governments are often hesitant to implement and monitor targets with a prime example from the UK which consistently refuses to set access targets.

Investing in education

The picture with regards to funding however is not uniform across Europe. Germany, France as well as Portugal, despite its financial situation, are all investing more in tertiary education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also called for increased public commitment to HE funding. Students, HEIs and governments can learn from such instances in reforming HE funding systems.

One of the main barriers to implementing reforms in HE across Europe over the past 10 years has been the extent and quality of (or lack of) implementation of reforms at national as well as institutional level. If education is a public good and public responsibility with societal returns it is crucial that students campaign and lobby not only nationally but also locally within their institutions to build pressure and bring about reforms that will benefit students and society at large.

George Charonis is representative on ESUs Academic Affairs Committee.

Find out more about ESU here
You can also email George  and follow him on Twitter.