Isn’ it ironic? 50 years ago, in May 1968, students in Paris were going to the barricades and aspiring to a societal revolution – and initiated an overdue reform of higher education almost throughout Europe eventually. Today, in May 2018, ministers in charge of higher education from 48 countries belonging to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) are meeting in the same place in order to discuss how to proceed with the Bologna Process which has been launched 20 years ago, in May 1998, in Paris, with the adoption of the Sorbonne Declaration.
At the Paris ministerial summit, a lot is at stake. On one hand the ministers have to check how far the goals of the Bologna Process as a 2-cycle-system of study programs, cooperation in quality assurance or promotion of mobility have been implemented in the 48 EHEA countries. They will have to decide if the commitments made by the previous ministerial summits still will remain un-binding for the countries or if the commitments will be enforced and governments be penalized for ignoring them. EI/ETUCE supports the idea of strengthening the binding character of the commitments but does not agree with any sanctions against countries which are not able to match all the goals yet. Rather reluctant countries should be encouraged and supported by experienced countries or stakeholders.
EI/ETUCE also advocates for EHEA countries to implement neglected Bologna goals, such as the social dimension of the EHEA which was put on the Bologna agenda already in 2001 in Prague. As the populations of the European countries become more diverse, higher education has to be made more inclusive. Particularly students from non-traditional backgrounds have to be supported. Therefore financial support systems have to be improved. And we need a lower teacher-student ratio in order to enable teachers to engage in real student centred learning in their classrooms.
Ministers in Paris will not just have to check the implementation of the previous commitments, the agenda of the summit also features discussions about possible new goals of the Bologna Process. A crucial aspect, that is particularly important for EI/ETUCE is enhancing teacher support. Teachers have to cope with new and serious challenges in higher education like an increasing and more diverse student population or the digitalisation of education, society and economy. Therefore they need more and better support – because quality teaching is dependent on highly qualified and motivated teachers.
Quality teaching can only be sustained with appropriate teaching and learning conditions including decent working terms and conditions - we need permanent employment and attractive career paths. According to a study authored by Marie Clarke on behalf of EI in 2015 almost half (48%) of surveyed academics across nine European countries did not have permanent contracts. The 2017 Eurydice report on academic staff also confirmed that job security is not the norm in the academic world. The status and recognition of teaching must be enhanced. Teachers must be better equipped with pedagogical tools and methods, , to meet the requirements of human and digital developments in existing and future societies. They must get the right to relevant continuous professional development.
In order to cope with all the challenges we need an increased public investment in higher education and research. Democratic societies need free and independent higher education and research institutions. EI/ETUCE urges ministers in Paris to commit to increased public funding to ensure quality and equality for all students as well as autonomy and academic freedom for academics and their institutions. Higher education is not a commodity and should not be for sale. Therefore we have to not only restrain the ministers from making further marketization and commercialisation of higher education, but also reverse marketization and commercialisation and bring higher education back to being a truly public good.
In the current political situation in Europe, higher education has a key role to play in order to contribute to the solving of current and future problems, such as the on-going economic and financial crisis, social and educational inequalities, demographic changes, new migration patterns including the forced migration of refugees, disintegration tendencies in the European Union, extremism and xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and authoritarian political movements. Thus active citizenship has to be integrated as one of the main objectives of higher education. Higher education institutions have to enhance the capacity of students to be active, critical and responsible citizens. They are supposed to build respectively to keep up democratic participation and collegial governance wherein students and staff members play a key role in decision-making processes at institutional, faculty and department levels.
The prerequisite of active citizenship of both students and academics is critical thinking and academic freedom which is under increasing pressure in parts of the EHEA. The most serious assault is in Turkey, one of the 48 EHEA member countries, where thousands of academics and administrative personnel have been dismissed from their posts and hundreds of academics and students have been detained and charged – just for having criticized the Turkish government or supporting an appeal for peace in Kurdish regions of Turkey. Ministers are supposed to denounce any violations of academic freedom or other fundamental values of the EHEA, such as institutional autonomy and collegial governance.
Half a century after the May 1968 events we are looking forward to another May event which could have an important impact on the future development of higher education in Europe. Something has changed: Students as well as academics won’t have to go to the barricades, they are acknowledged by the establishment and their representations will have the right to participate and speak up in the ministerial summit. Go for it - Education International is going to mix up the Paris ministerial summit!