Students: hitch up to Europe

A wave of student protest animated Britain’s political scene in late 2010 and highlighted wider concerns about the future of universities. There is already a decade of European experience of student engagement in this area where the movement can find allies and exert influence in 2011, says Anne Corbett. 
Anne Corbett
19 January 2011

Must the British student protest, and the wider debate it is inspiring, remain insular? It is curious that while those in other parts of Europe have watched with horrified fascination the fate of the London government`s tuition-fees policy, British students and commentators appear to ignore related events across much of the continent.  

This is a pity, for a complex and relevant story is being played out in the Europe of higher education, where many of the issues which provoked students to take to the streets in 2008-10 parallel those now animating their British counterparts: budget cuts, efficiency reforms, new ways of cost-sharing and of managing degrees, tuition-fee rises, privatisation, and selective strategies for excellence. European governments defend all these proposed changes to the university system as responses to a general context of austerity and global competition.

The ensuing protests - in Spain, in Italy and Greece against reform bills, in France (where lecturers were also deeply involved), in Holland, Denmark and Finland against cuts and/or fees, in Austria, Germany and Croatia where curriculum concerns were to the fore - were reported in the media as national events. Yet they share elements that cross national boundaries. 

Among these is opposition to the alleged dumbing-down of the content of courses and degrees. For the protesters in these countries, the main culprit is the European Union’s "Bologna process", a voluntary intergovernmental initiative launched in 1999 designed “to make European higher education more compatible and comparable, more competitive and more attractive for Europeans and for students and scholars from other continents”. The forty-seven signatory countries are committed to introducing the British-American bachelor-masters-doctorate degree structure, thus moving away from the system where a first diploma is awarded only after some original research has been completed. The opponents of this change see “Bologna” is junk – mere spag bol

European dimensions

But there is another view. The elected student organisations have tended to see potential benefits in the Bologna process, such as lower drop-out rates and more attentive professors. More broadly, their appeal is that they offer a transnational political platform which allows students as well as politicians to show that cooperation can work across cultural and linguistic boundaries - a practice that has survived and developed over Europe’s last four decades, notwithstanding several political changes and occasional tensions with the European commission (see Universities and  the Europe of Knowledge [Palgrave Macmillan, 2005]).

The common “European higher-education area” which is being created under the Bologna rubric has over 4,000 universities and a student population of 30 million. It extends beyond the twenty-seven EU member-states and their immediate neighbours to Russia and Turkey and microstates like Andorra and the Vatican. All are committed both to instituting the tripartite degree system and to respecting common principles on fair recognition of foreign diplomas and quality assurance.

There are inevitable bumps along the way, especially among leading members. For example, England is recognised as having more world-class universities than its European partners, yet also shorter courses and lighter-weight loads on students; this has pushed British representatives to seek to devise measures which reflect learning outcomes rather than the time-inputs and course length.

This sort of adaptation is likely to continue, not least as Bologna is of great interest in regions beyond Europe. Three projects are underway in the United States to reproduce the process’s “accountability loop”; Australia is trying to meet an unexpected European challenge; southeast Asian higher education is looking at parallel forms of coordination; the Indian sector follows Bologna closely.
But in the European Union, Bologna is not the only game in town. A second and to an extent overlapping European dynamic, reflecting the wider Lisbon agenda / Europe 2020 strategy, sees heads of state and government advance the more instrumental view that - especially in times of austerity and global competition - the primary function of universities is to be engines of growth for the European economy (as well as making a large contribution to social stability). The three pillars of this “modernisation” which most concern universities are autonomy, curriculum and funding.
The European commission’s argument is that autonomy will allow universities to adapt their curriculum to a niche market, whether global or local; and to seek out supplementary (read non-state or private) funding. The argument has no legal force but is persuasive in that the commission can disburse incentive funds and wield institutional resources to strengthens links with other areas of policy (research, regional development and EU neighbourhood).

The student role in all this is represented within the Bologna rather than the commission-centred process. The relevant body is the federative European Students' Union (ESU, formerly ESIB), whose elected executive has since 2001 been a consultative member of the Bologna process, alongside (for example) the European University Association and the Council of Europe. The ESU’s consistency and good preparation have made it more effective than many national delegations.

Its achievements include (as early as 2001) making clear that ministers and their officials were giving priority to process rather than values, and thus ensuring a commitment to the principle of higher education as a public good; resisting the potential inclusion of higher education within the General Agreement on Trade and Services (Gats); getting access and equity issues onto the Bologna agenda; and, in spring 2010, persuading ministers for the first time to recognise the concerns of protesting students.

The transnational challenge

But so far, an important element is missing from the “Europe of higher education”: a vision to inspire. At two other big moments in European university history, the creation of a Magna Charta for universities (1988) and the founding of the Bologna process (1998-99), some voices were able to transcend national boundaries and make the case that the work of universities and the interests of those within them (and society at large) would be better served by anchoring them more firmly to a European as well as a national dimension.

This might be about to change, in great part thanks to the former Dutch minister of education and current president of Maastricht University, Jo Ritzen. In June 2010, he published a book with the alluring title A Chance for European Universities (Amsterdam University Press). This unusual work combines far-sighted optimism with a collaborative approach that made its preparation an open process (a pre-publication version was available on the web). A manifesto alongside the finalised version was signed by some of the most active higher-education ministers of the Bologna decade, including Tessa Blackstone (a founder of the process, and now vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich) and several policy experts (as one of the latter I declare an interest).

Jo Ritzen’s activities have two main themes. First, and contrary to Europe’s dominant discourse in both the commission and economic think-tanks, that universities are about much more than providing for a global market; to recover some of their past glory, they have to be cherished and empowered as institutions. Second, that Europe is a “shining example” of reducing political costs at the national level, and thus a way of breaking domestic deadlocks.

Ritzen’s book may present students in rather administrative terms (index references are to grants, migration, mobility and student numbers), but he clearly wants to open a Europe-wide debate on the politics of higher education in which the more participants and the greater diversity of views the better. He is the sort of advocate who helps to push an issue along, and his ambition of being elected to the European parliament may increase his visibility further.

The European context of university reform and student protest suggests that some British students at least should consider going comparative and transnational to get this dimension into domestic debate - whether through the European Students' Union or other sources. Two issues in particular cry out for some cross-national input: how other systems balance the private and public interest, not just on tuition-fees and loans but through tax and wealth-distribution policies; and (crucial for English universities) how to counter the government’s proposed treatment of arts and humanities as a matter of customer choice rather than intrinsic to the function of a university.

Can universities still be called the greatest creation of the European mind? I suggest that British students can help determine the answer.

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