Was there a student voice in Leuven?

esucoverThe European Students’ Union (ESU) is clearly enjoying being a part of the Bologna Process. Claiming the legitimacy of representing 11 million students from 49 National student unions, the ESU is a stakeholder group directly involved in the Bologna Process and contributing position papers (see Bologna With Student Eyes and the Prague Student Declaration) to the Leuven Meeting.

Claims to representativeness though should be treated with a degree of caution and this applies even more to the unambiguous support which ESU gives to what it calls the Bologna Vision:

The Bologna Process is all about a vision, a vision of breaking down educational borders and creating a European Higher Education Area where learning is encouraged, facilitated and enabled in a simplified, integrated way across the continent

At which point it begs the question of whether the critical and analytical perspectives have not rather been blunted by proximity as privileged insiders to the discourses and visions. The ESU would not be the first representative body to be taken up by bureaucratic and careerist agendas and seduced by proximity to forums of power and influence.

The problem is that the ESU has become rather more of a cheerleader of the Process than a critical participant in it. In its 2009 Prague Declaration, the ESU did hold out for higher education as both a public good and a public responsibility and wanted a guarantee of free higher education accessible for all, based on public funding. However, the levels and diversity of positions with regard to public funding and tuition fees in the Bologna signatory countries means that this call is at best naïve. And it goes hand in hand with a call for the full Bologna action lines to be implemented and for the process to go further, faster and be rigorously benchmarked. In effect what they want is a level of harmonisation and coercion which would bring a blush to even the most ardent European Commission official. It is all very well to declare in favour of public provision and against tuition fees but if the Process is about making it easier to achieve precisely the opposite then it might be more useful to have less vision and more critical analysis.

The level of acquiescence with the Bologna scripts from the ESU is breathtaking. Mobility is seen as an unalloyed good:

Its benefits for students, academics, institutions and society as a whole are undisputed. Xenophobia exists and becomes especially evident in the event of an economic crisis such as the one we are currently facing. Mobility will require openness and will contribute to a more tolerant European society

In fact of course mobility is a far more problematic issue than this. The ESU does recognise the dangers of the commodification of higher education, the promotion of brain drain and the creation of a higher education market but seems to see these as somehow side-effects rather than of the essence of the Bologna Process. The ESU both opposes making a market out of higher education and actively calls for the process which is contributing to it to be extended and implemented.


If you want to hear student voices which can be more detached than this, you have to look elsewhere. You would need to hear from the occupiers of university buildings in Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Valencia in opposition to the implications of the Bologna Process, the implementation of Credit Transfer and the pressures for rationalisation in university teaching.  Or what about the dizzy revolts against the commercialisation, managerialism and quality assurance pathologies of Bologna, French-style? Or perhaps those involved in Greek struggles over University spatial and legal autonomy? Even the poster-boys of education reform, the Finns, have got into a tangle over higher education reforms which flow from the logic if not the vision of Bologna.

louvain1Meanwhile the Vague Européenne called for a Counter Summit in Leuven to protest against the Bologna Process. Supported by a host of radical student organisations, the summit set out to give voice to a coherent opposition to the actually existing Higher Education reforms which have been both enabled and logically derived from the Bologna Process.

At national and institutional levels then, particular kinds of student voices are being heard. At the level of the Bologna Process, it is unlikely that the ESU can achieve the level of detachment needed given the considerable stake which it has to the success of a Process which gives it a central role.

Peter Jones

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5 thoughts on “Was there a student voice in Leuven?

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  2. Peter Jones’ attack on ESU’s role in the Bologna process is not only misguided and patronising, but also fundamentally negative and even anti-democratic. I say this not as a paid up ESU member or cheerleader but rather as an observer and researcher of the Bologna process over the best part of the last decade. To respond to a few of Jones’ points:

    1) Jones begins by dismissing ESU as an organisation that is “enjoying being part of the Bologna Process”, and that is apparently not sufficiently representative of student views for his taste. It never ceases to amaze me that those organisations whose democratic credentials are the most transparent should be subjected to this kind of criticism. While of course there are more students outside student unions than within them, nonetheless ESU has impeccable democratic credentials, and is clearly a legitimate player in the Bologna process. Just for comparison, while ESU’s representatives are elected at every stage of their governance process, could anyone let us know about the most recent elections of the civil servants who “represent” the 46 countries in the BFUG?

    The next attack is that ESU has become a cheerleader for the Bologna process rather than a critical participant. For anyone who has ever participated in a BFUG meeting this statement must at least have brought a laugh. And Jones then points out (correctly) that ESU has consistently held out for higher education as a public good and public responsibility. But now it appears that Jones’ objection has switched: rather than cheerleading the process, ESU are just being naïve and playing King Kanute in trying to stem the inevitable wave of privatisation that the Bologna process is seemingly cruising along.

    So Jones wants to have it both ways: when it suits him he claims ESU are the comprised student cheerleaders of the process. And at other times they are the naïve resistance to inevitable privatisation. But even more worrying than Jones’ lack of coherence is that he is – whether consciously or not – undermining the process of negotiation and stakeholder participation that characterises the most positive aspects of the Bologna process. Indeed he suggests that we should look elsewhere than ESU for “detached” student voices, implying that ESU would do better to join the barricades with their comrades in Spain, Greece, France etc. Yet the irony of this is that those “detached” occupiers of university buildings are also protesting about the attack on public responsibility for higher education in their countries that Jones considers so naïve when ESU is making the case.

    Rather than picking on ESU, Jones would do better himself to analyse the reality a bit closer. ESU does indeed play a difficult role, as they have chosen the route of democratic participation in an open, consultative process, and are trying to develop and take forward the most positive vision possible (in their eyes) of a European Higher Education Area. Jones may not share the vision, but he should at least try to avoid the cheap shots. At the same time, ESU have clear principles and values that they try to bring in to the admittedly compromised Bologna Communiqués, and they also take on the responsibility of trying to explain to their national members and other students what Bologna is and what it isn’t. This is not exactly helped when commentators like Jones mix up these issues and write that privatisation is a part of Bologna even when, as other commentators such as Roger Dale have observed, what is extraordinary in the Ministerial declarations is their continuing reinforcement of public responsibility, with no mention of privatisation. And of course, the fact that these texts have placed such a strong emphasis on public responsibility, the social dimension and lifelong learning is to a very large extent due to the presence and pressure of ESU.

    So yes, let’s debate about the kind of European Higher Education Area we would like to see, and about the threats our visions face. But let’s not descend to the kind of petty and unsubstantiated attacks found in Peter Jones’ article.

  3. At the risk of being accused of further cheap shots, I feel it is important to emphasize that David Crosier worked for the European University Association from 2001. My understanding is that he currently works for the European Union’s Executive Agency for Education, Audiovisual and Cultural Programmes which operates under the supervision of the European Commission. At the Leuven Meeting he made a presentation to the participants on behalf of Eurydice and his executive agency. I hope I am not overstating things when I suggest then that he is a significant actor within the Bologna Process who is now engaged in how the European Commission spends money in support of Higher Education reform. To my mind, David is something other than the detached and neutral observer and researcher which he presents himself as being in his comment here. He is a Bologna actor, first stakeholder and now executive agent, with a complex history of affiliations within the process. And he has stepped forward to defend the ESU from the suggestion that the have become more cheerleader than critical participant. It is important to re-state that the suggestion is of more of one rather than that they have stopped being entirely the other. Fine judgements and legitimate questions I think. And no doubt they are also the questions which David will need to ask of himself as he switches organisation in mid-Bologna stream.

    In effect, charges that the stakeholder groups are so deeply embedded and implicated in the Bologna Process that they find it difficult to recognise and adequately represent the force of arguments made from outside, apply to David as much as they do to the organisation which he sets out to defend. His defense of the European Students Union can, to my mind, be read as a defense of all of the poor, misunderstood and apparently victimised stakeholders and institutions involved in the elite Bologna Process. Whether these elite networks are in need of such spirited defence and what is revealed by this defence are matters which deserve the consideration which they receive here.

    David’s lengthy response to the question of the kind of student voices and perspectives which were represented in Leuven, identifies some important issues in a way which underlines the sensitivities involved.
    Democratic process is of course important and I am sure that the ESU like the other members of the E4 have a governance structure where consultation and voting of some form takes place. Whether this amounts to democratic legitimacy is a rather different matter. Questions of representativeness, accountability, transparency and legitimacy do not disappear because someone like David asserts impeccable democratic credentials. In relation to these processes, the ESU may well be able to claim more substantial democratic credentials than most but given the competition, that is really not saying very much. Politically too, it is surely important to recognise that democratic process is no guarantee of good policy. To say this is not of course to be anti-democratic, it is to be realistic about policy formation in electoral systems and even more so in opaque and delegated governance processes.

    The question of stakeholder groups being co-opted by participation in governance processes, the core of the questions I raised, does not receive an adequate response from David. At the risk of sounding vituperative, insiders to these processes are not perhaps the best guides to understanding the social relations between the participants. What they can do of course is let the rest of us know whether ESU representatives made any links between the considerable unrest in universities across Europe and the Bologna Process at the meeting in Leuven? Were those voices represented or not? That was my question and despite David’s attempts to make me the topic (I am variously characterised as misguided, patronising, negative, laughter-inducing, inconsistent, incoherent, bullying, cheap and petty) it is the question which still needs to be answered.

    It seems to me that there are two things which have combined to fuel David’s evident irritation and his intemperate language.

    The first is that in an admittedly brief and impressionistic way, I have raised the question of contradiction: whether it is possible to have both stated (and actual) support for public funding at the same time as promoting incremental privatisation? Rather than me wanting to have it both ways, my question was whether those involved in the process have been complicit in both intensifying and denying this contradiction. As Roger Dale, my colleague, has indeed said, it is extraordinary that public should be mentioned so many times in the Communique. The extraordinary nature of it is not however exhausted by David’s sense that this confirms that privatisation has no part in the Bologna Process. Pressing the public funding/responsibility button as rhetoric and discourse is not a sign that the social dimension has triumphed. To assert that it is, as students of political cant will readily confirm, is disingenuous.

    The second, is that for participants in this process, it has become a matter of both normative and professional commitments. It is remarkable how many of those who claim to speak about the process are actually speaking for it. If you want evidence of this, the contents of the globalhighered blog itself are telling. Commentary and critique often take the form of normative commitments to processes which are the stuff of the day to day professional life and sense of value of the commentators. In this respect, David’s comments are unsurprising.

    The process is defended as benign and a product of rational discussion and consensus. Indeed its benign nature is guaranteed by processes of negotiation and stakeholder participation. This is the normative political world of Brussels of course. From this point of view, actual students, rather than student politicians, must appear as the comrades on the barricades who David derides. The implications of David’s tirade are that critical voices are ill-informed, impertinent, reactionary, unrealistic and anti-democratic. Of course, anything which tries to open up for consideration some of the deeply embedded normative and political commitments of these participants in these processes is trespassing on sensitive ground.

    These are, however, legitimate questions and it may well be that more considered commentary and critique from a broader range of participants who have less personally at stake in the perception and success of these processes would do more to contribute to the democratic discussion which as Anne Corbett has emphasised, is a necessary stage in political and social buy-in to the visions of higher education which may develop in support of, in tandem with or in contestation of the Bologna visions.

    Establishment figures of course find it easy to forget that protests in the street are not only a legitimate part of the democratic process but the reason why we have a democratic process at all. It may be convenient for the Bologna policy elite to treat stakeholders as the authentic voice of critical opposition but in the long run, and in particular given the reality of what is shaping up to be a very long recession indeed, it would be misguided. As processes continue and start to bite, their contradictions are likely to intensify. The extent to which the ESU participants are representing student voices is a matter for them, the national unions which provide them with whatever democratic legitimacy they can claim, and the students of Europe. There are many positions between cheer-leading and mounting the barricades. The perspectives of an EUA official (or an official tasked with spending some of the money which enables the Bologna process to take place) on which positions should be reflected by the ESU are hardly likely to be disinterested and are likely to prove false friends to the causes which the ESU seeks to promote.

    At this point, I think it is possible to say with some degree of precision that David, like the ESU student politicians to whose defence he rides, are part of the Bologna Process policy elite. That a member of the elite feels the need to lash out is perhaps of more than personal or individual significance. As an observer and researcher, indeed as a student rather than an EUA official or an Executive Agent, it may well be that the questions and comments in this response to David will elicit further response. In that case, readers of this blog will be able be given further opportunities to decide for themselves who is representing which interests, with which kinds of argument, candour and coherence and, I might add, with which kinds of resources of power.

  4. I did not intend for my comment to appear as an attack on Peter Jones, but rather as a critique of the arguments he put forward, which I still consider to have been unfair, ill informed and largely incorrect.

    The problem with many of Peter’s arguments is that they are constructed on distorting characterisations. For example, to state that the Bologna process is being influenced by “elite” stakeholder networks is a fundamental misconception. Where does Peter spy an élite stakeholder organisation around the Bologna table? Is he thinking of EUA, my former employer, with over 800 university members and potentially open to every university in the continent? Or that élite student organisation ESU, open to every democratic national student union in Europe? While it may be better for his argument to knock élites, surely there should be some basis for making such claims?

    And on a larger point, if we are to engage in the construction of a European Higher Education Area, and if this project is to be organised, and if that organisational process is to include “student voices” which student organisations would Peter prefer to be involved? And if he does not have a more “representative, accountable, transparent, and legitimate” body in mind, why launch an attack on ESU on these grounds?

    So Peter, my comment was not made to “defend the poor, misunderstood and victimised stakeholders” but to point out that your attack was unfounded in the first place.

    The next claim that Peter makes is that ESU has been co-opted (corrupted?) by participation in Bologna governance processes. Peter asks whether ESU representatives made any links to the protests in universities across Europe while in Leuven. The brief answer is yes, they did. But the more important point to stress again is that this characterisation of ESU as Establishment student politicians while student protestors are the genuine radicals is a clear misrepresentation. I would simply invite readers (including Peter) to read through a few ESU position papers to see for themselves that ESU have a very consistent record of taking on the same issues that other students are protesting about.

    There is one important point that Peter makes with which I fully agree. The so-called social dimension within the Bologna process has not only failed to triumph, but it’s also scarcely been addressed in reality. And so while the Bologna process has been affirming public responsibility, across Europe privatisation of higher education has been growing. But to imply that the Bologna process is therefore a kind of Orwellian smokescreen whose purpose is to deflect attention from this reality, and that ESU are complicit in the whole plot, is frankly far-fetched. Governments, who have full competence in education and higher education matters, are where we should attribute responsibility for privatisation, not student unions who have been doing their level best to resist the tide.

    Finally, while it is perfectly legitimate for Peter to point out that I currently work for Eurydice and previously worked for EUA I do not think this invalidates my claim to being a researcher and observer of the Bologna process during the past decade. For the sake of comprehensiveness, he could also have added that I worked for the Council of Europe (another actor in the Bologna process) before 2001. But while working for these organisations has enabled me to witness the Bologna bureaucracy at close hand, Peter does overstate his case in claiming that I am a significant actor engaged in how the European Commission spends money in support of Higher Education reform. If only it were true…

  5. Pingback: Students: hitch up to Europe « GlobalHigherEd

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