Just two years after the signing of the Bologna Declaration, European education officials, representing 30 countries, convened in Prague on May 19 to review the progress achieved so far, and to coordinate objectives for the coming years. The Bologna Declaration aims to establish a unified system of European higher education by 2010.
In particular, the officials reaffirmed their commitment to introduce a system of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, already adopted in many European countries. They further added that the strengthening of quality assurance, facilitating greater student mobility, and increasing Europe’s share of the international student market were also top priorities to strive towards collectively.
Until quite recently, students did not have much say at the higher levels of European higher education decision-making, and were largely shut out of the negotiations at Sorbonne and Bologna aimed at harmonizing Europe’s diverse systems of higher education. Indeed, representatives of the National Unions of Students in Europe  (ESIB) had to invite themselves to the Bologna Conference in 1999.
Since that time however, the ESIB has become more perceptible and vocal at all major Bologna-related events. Students attended the follow-up meeting held in Salamanca, Spain last March, and in the same month ESIB affiliated members from 32 countries gathered in Göteborg, Sweden to prepare an official statement encapsulating their views on the Bologna process. That statement was presented by ESIB chairperson Jacob Henricson to the European ministers of education at the Prague summit (May18-19). We have included the full text of that speech below.
The Recommendations of the European Students Concerning the Bologna Process
Dear Ministers of Education,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First I would like to thank the ministers, their representatives and the organizers for giving me, as the chairperson of ESIB, the opportunity to present the recommendations of the European students concerning the Bologna Process. But who is ESIB to present the students’ view?
ESIB is the umbrella organization of National Unions of Students. At the moment we have members coming from 36 countries, from all over Europe. These countries are as far apart as Iceland from Georgia, Cyprus to Ireland and Finland to Portugal. In June 1999, ESIB and its members had to invite themselves to the ministerial meeting on “A European Higher Education Area” in Bologna.
A lot has changed since Bologna because since then, ESIB has been visibly and actively involved in the construction of the European higher education area. There are two reasons for this.
First, ESIB thinks that by principle the whole of the higher education community should be involved in shaping the European higher education area. Since students are part of this community, they should be treated as equal partners.
Second, ESIB simply welcomes the emergence of a European education area. ESIB would, however, like to raise some awareness about issues that are of great importance to students. Over 120 student representatives from all over Europe gathered in Göteborg in the end of March 2001 to prepare their input to this meeting, and they agreed on the following principles.
First I will set out in brief our objectives and the means. To conclude I will raise two important issues of concern.
ESIB sees the Bologna process as the crucial step towards achieving the objective of a Europe without boundaries for its citizens. A European higher education area should include all European students on an equal basis. The creation of this area is a common responsibility of all European countries and should take into account the political and socio-economic differences in Europe.
But students will have to be able to benefit from the other advantages this integrated European higher education area can bring them. And this brings us to the tension between this integration and the objective of preserving diversity.
The Bologna Declaration can give an added value to the European Higher Education. This implies that the result of the whole Bologna Process cannot be the disappearance of the richness of the current systems. While converging towards a European higher education area, this diversity can be safeguarded as an invaluable asset. This asset is part of the European educational culture in which higher education of a high quality has always been an important goal.
The word ‘quality’ however is only mentioned once in the Bologna Declaration. Not even quality as such, but in the context of quality assurance: “…the promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies.”
According to ESIB, quality is a distinguishing characteristic guiding students and higher education institutions. Quality improvement and quality assurance feature high on the agenda of ESIB and its member unions all over Europe, and therefore more attention should be paid to improving and certifying this quality.
The Bologna Declaration mentions mobility of students and teachers. In order to build the “European Higher Education Area,” mobility should become a right for all students. The fear that the mobility experience will only create a new student elite is, however, firmly alive in ESIB. Therefore ESIB would like to add a third dimension to this: the mobility of the study finance system.
Most of the students in Europe are not able to receive grants and/or loans when they study abroad. This measure of course limits the possibility for students to study abroad, to become mobile. ESIB wants all forms of domestic financial and social support to students to be fully transferable abroad. This way, mobility will be opened up to a wider population of the European students.
Everybody must have equal access to higher education. By this, it is understood that everybody with the capacity to study in higher education has the opportunity to enter higher education institutions. Even the European Community Memorandum on Higher Education emphasizes the political need to achieve “equal opportunities regarding the access to all forms of education.”
Thus the Bologna Declaration cannot be a legitimization for any kind of access restrictions, be it tuition fees or cutting on higher education funding.
To repeat for a moment: the students want a European higher education area in which diversity is guaranteed and in which they have access to both high quality education and to mobility.
The means to establish this kind of European higher education area should evolve around the following focal points:
To ensure that all programs of higher education institutions are compatible and exchangeable, a system of credits based on workload should be implemented in the whole of Europe.
To guarantee and improve the quality of higher education, a strong European cooperation of the national quality assurance systems is needed. Quality assurance is a pre-condition to accreditation, and therefore internal and external quality-assurance systems should be in place everywhere in Europe before accreditation is implemented.
Concerning accreditation, a common European framework of criteria for accreditation and a compatible system of degrees is needed, in order to make sure that credits accumulated in different countries or at different institutions are transferable and lead to a recognizable degree.
A two-tier degree system should guarantee accessibility and access for all students and should not lead to the exclusion of students on other than academic grounds.
III. ISSUES OF CONCERN
I have now presented the students’ objectives and, in brief, the means. Now we would like to raise some issues of concern. These issues are very important for the students because they are decisive for the positive or negative attitude students all over Europe have towards the Bologna Process.
3.2. The Social Dimension
Although the Bologna Declaration pointed out the basic aspects of the European dimension in higher education, it failed to address the social implications the process has on students. This social dimension includes accessibility, study finance systems and their mobility, student welfare and, also, the use of languages. We know that these are all under the competency of your governments. But so is the rest of the Bologna Process, and therefore, these are issues that can be addressed in the Bologna Process.
As you all know this is really an important problem for students. A lot of countries have experienced negative reactions and protests against the Bologna Process because of the lack of any social dimension. ESIB has been the only actor in the Bologna Process addressing the social issues, and we would really like the ministers to recognize this.
3.3. Education as Public Good
The term “education market” in itself already forms a distorted picture of education. ESIB strongly opposes the handling of education as a common market commodity. Education is an investment by society and should be beneficial for both the individual and the society alike. ESIB demands that education preserves its task as a contributor to social equality in society.
Higher education must therefore remain accessible to all students. Transnational education provision must not jeopardize this.
The Bologna Declaration should open new dimensions for the students. It should open doors that were closed before or only open to the happy few. This of course means that closing down publicly funded higher education or pure privatization is out of the question. Publicly funded higher education must remain the main form of higher education in the future.
ESIB strongly supports the idea of higher education as a public good because higher education must aim to meet the needs of society as a whole. This however does not mean that all higher education institutions should be public. Even private higher education can be a public good.
This is especially important in light of the current negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). If Europe doesn’t act, GATS can eventually lead to free trade in education and, thus, a total privatization of higher education.
We are not saying it will eventually lead to this. It can if the commitment of all the governments in Europe to their education system is not strong enough, and if they don’t take up their public responsibility for education.
Linked to this is also the emergence of pure economical thinking into the language used by the higher education community. ESIB has had to react several times during the international Bologna seminars.
Students are not just clients.
Education is not a product.
A higher education institution is not a supermarket.
Students are an equal part of the higher education community. In this respect, students must be seen as partners and not as clients. Seeing students as just clients would imply that only financially well-off students would be able to buy high quality education. Therefore we, the students in Europe, would like to be referred to as students and not as clients.
So what are the students trying to tell you? We’re trying to tell you that this is a moment for European higher education to reinforce itself and provide the European students with the education they deserve.
But the Bologna Process is not so much a European process. It’s a national process in which the main actors are the governments and the higher education community consisting of higher education institutions and students. Therefore we ask you, the ministers responsible for higher education, explicitly to write a social dimension into the implementation of the Bologna Declaration and to preserve higher education as a public good.
For more information on the Prague summit, go to: www.esib.org/prague/index/htm .