The 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.
Meanwhile 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.