Arm us with opportunity to compete in Euro arena

May 11, 2001

European students will be making their voices heard at next week's Prague summit, says Manja Klemencic.

Two years ago, representatives of Europe's students had to invite themselves to the European education ministers' meeting in Bologna that formalised the drive to create a European higher education area.

Next week, the ESIB - The National Unions of Students in Europe - is a keynote speaker at the Prague summit on higher education, at which European education ministers will try to push the Bologna process a step further.

The growing recognition and commitment of the student dimension in the process is a result of European students' dedication to a high-quality, accessible and diverse higher education sector. We want to ensure that the implementation of the Bologna declaration serves the students of Europe in the best possible way, respecting their rights and creating new opportunities for them.

The Bologna process, which aims to develop a transparent, attractive and competitive European arena of higher education, began at the Sorbonne in 1998 and was institutionalised in Italy in June 1999 when 31 ministers from 29 European countries signed the Bologna declaration. Next week's summit will assess the progress and problems thrown up since and set the main priorities for action.

Europe's students - through the ESIB - have been involved in all the major Bologna-related events so far, and the ESIB have an observer's seat on the follow-up group. Policies and statements adopted by the representatives of students from 32 countries affiliated to the ESIB has crystallised into the Goteborg declaration, which will be presented at the summit.

We share the fundamental belief that higher education is a public good and, as such, institutions act in the public interest. In striving for more international competitiveness, mobility and employability, education ministers must never forget the ultimate ethos of higher education - to foster social responsibility and civic involvement and thus drive social development. Even more, their discussions should lead to recommendations on how the public function of higher education should be developed.

We will remind ministers that it is the ultimate responsibility of the state to finance higher education and thus ensure equal access and diversity of quality programmes.

In Prague, European students also want to highlight that the Bologna declaration failed to address the social implications of the process for students. Even though ministers are worried about the competitiveness and attractiveness of European higher education in the global market, we cannot accept economics as the sole driving force of the process. Students are not consumers of a marketable education service, but equal partners in the higher education community and a force for change.

The ESIB also seeks a system of credits based on workload, a common European framework of criteria for accreditation and a compatible system of degrees.

Alongside the basic principle of free access, a two-tier degree system should guarantee free and equal access to all students. Academic, social, economic and political obstacles to mobility should be removed and relevant information should be provided to contribute to the mobility of students, teaching staff and researchers.

Awareness of the Bologna process is woefully low among academics, administrators and students. They are crucial to the implementation of the European credit transfer system, mobility programmes, quality assurance mechanisms and performance of public function. The ESIB is coordinating Bologna student days to provide students with information about the process so that they can pressure institutions and national governments. The action days started on April 30 and are running until Monday.

As a result of the Bologna process, responsible and socially aware graduates with strong international academic experience and a high degree of knowledge, skills and expertise will emerge from universities in the European higher education area.

We hope that everyone recognises the process as a path towards improvements in all national systems, spreading good practice and promoting cooperation between European states, while cherishing diversity.

These improvements will contribute to greater mobility, increased quality and attractiveness of European education and research. Universities will develop into "micro-societies", in which democratic practices and a culture of active and responsible participation can be acquired, and where students are respected and valued as partners.

Manja Klemencic is secretary general, the ESIB. Details: www.esib.org/prague/index.htm

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