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

Scholarship tourism – a devil in the detail of the EU

While the European Commission works towards a funding paradigm for student support in HIgher Education (fees, income contingent loans and grants might sound more familiar in some national contexts than in others), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is about to do its bit to address the im/possibility of specific national models.

As the euobserver reported last week (01.07.2008), EU Member States are closely monitoring a forthcoming ECJ judgement. In 2000 a German student, Jaqueline Foerster, went to study in the Netherlands. She met the criteria for receiving a Dutch grant but was deemed to no longer to meet them in 2005 and was told to repay part of the grant. The problem though was that Dutch students in her position in 2005 would not have been asked for repayments. The difference was due solely to nationality. She challenged the decision and the ECJ will deliver its judgement on the 10th of July.

This is not the first case in this area but the ECJ ruling will develop from its decision on the Bidar case in 2005. Dany Bidar, a French student, had been refused a UK scholarship but in the end the Court ruled that because he could demonstrate integration in the UK, he should have been treated in the same way as a UK national.

Both of these cases involve foreign nationals who can demonstrate some degree of assimilation but there are other ECJ rulings which raise other questions. Austria has been judged in breach of EU law by setting restrictions on German medical students who would qualify in Austria but go on to practice in Germany thereby creating conditions of Austrian state support for the German health care system. In Belgium, the French Community adopted quotas for nine areas including medicine for fear of an influx of French students undermining the long term viability of its health care provision.

As the euobserver says, the ECJ rulings on grounds of non-discrimination and freedom of movement effectively trump the lack of an EU treaty mandate to determine the content or organisation of education systems. National arrangements have to be legitimated as necessary and proportionate although it is the ECJ which will decide whether they have successfully done this or not.

What is happening then is two things. Firstly that incrementally, the viability of separate national arrangements for student support (and of health and welfare systems too) comes into question. It is the difference in the arrangements between member states which encourage a degree of scholarship tourism. Secondly, the lack of arrangements for ensuring that the payback from investments in student support can be captured produces a pressure to develop common EU arrangements. A Commission paradigm of fees, grants and loans is not just a discourse then, it gets material and institutional support from the tensions and contradictions of the bigger EU mobility, non-discrimination, ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’ legal principles. The devil is in the detail and EU Member States are following the case closely because of its implications for some high stakes policy domains including Higher Education.

Peter Jones

US student mobility: cultural enrichment and national security

Record numbers of US students are studying abroad. The Institute of International Education‘s latest report, Open Doors 2007 (IIE), provides details of the 150% increase in US student mobility over the last ten years with an 8.5% rise in 2005-2006. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education have detailed coverage of the findings.

Looking below the headline figures a number of features become clear. As the US Department of State website highlights, most students take part in programs of eight weeks or less, just over a third stay for an entire semester and only 5.5% are away for a year or more. Europe is the most popular destination but there have been big jumps in numbers going to Latin America (particularly Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador), Asia (in China, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Hong Kong numbers have seen large increases), Africa (Tanzania saw a 19% increase ). In the Middle East students have been increasingly mobile into Israel and Jordan.

Looking at the numbers and destinations it becomes hard not to see a pattern emerging. US students are being funded through IIE administered programs into countries with particular affinities with the US. In addition, one new source of funding is the US Department of State’s National Security Language Initiative program which targets mobility for learning Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Persian and other ‘critically’ needed foreign languages.

The rhetoric which surrounds the celebration of these trends is familiar. So Condoleeza Rice says that mobility:

Expands young people’s opportunities, enriches their lives, and demonstrates our respect for other cultures

While Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes is especially proud of IIE programs which:

By reaching out to students of more modest means, has produced truly remarkable gains in the numbers of US citizens from minority communities who can now aspire to the life-changing experience of study abroad.

If we draw together a number of features of US student mobility patterns we can start to ask some important questions about the objectives which are served by mobility. The top three majors of US students studying abroad are the social sciences, business and management, and humanities, so why are math, science and technology majors nowhere near as mobile.? The majority of students follow well worn paths to countries with cultural, economic and political affinities with the US but is there a growing trend towards mobility into countries with developing importance for US interests? Students still tend to be mobile for very short periods of time; how does the dynamic of State Department funding for critical language (and cultural) understanding interact with the necessarily brief exposure of less than eight weeks?

With hard power and soft power increasingly on the march, it seems that we need to keep on thinking about what is at stake when we talk about student mobility. Mobility is always from somewhere to somewhere and for some purpose. US student mobility patterns suggest that we need to keep looking at the cultural and political in addition to the economic. There is a link between cultural enrichment and national security and EU policy in Central Asia suggests it is a link which is not only made in the US.

Peter D. Jones

Brainpower famine in Eastern Europe: food for thought

lisboncouncilreport.jpgThe Brussels based think-tank, The Lisbon Council, sees trouble ahead for the countries of both Western and Eastern Europe. The Eastern European low-wage, low-tax, FDI-driven growth rates of today, accelerated by membership of the EU, are not going to last. A combination of low-birth rates and increasing brain drain will combine to fix their economic trajectories at well below the EU average with no prospect of improvement. And that is a problem for Western Europe too: it has been the dynamism of the East which has given a fillip to the West.

In its just issued report, The European Human Capital Index: The Challenge of Central and Eastern Europe, the Lisbon Council claims:

There is a very real risk that in coming decades Central and Eastern Europe could become a sparsely-populated area with a declining workforce that will have to shoulder the burden of a population set to experience unprecedented levels of aging and decline. At stake is nothing less than the long-term sustainability of these remarkable countries, which have added so much to Europe’s history, economy and diversity.

Now, if we look beyond the doom-laden futurology and risk of future collapse which seems to be so much a part of these calls for action, we can begin to see the contradictions in the analysis and the prescriptions. The EU economy is driven by processes of centralization and concentration and we can see this in the movements of knowledge, technology and capital. Universities are heavily implicated in this and the mobility of students and the highly skilled is the brain drain which is going to accelerate the emptying of the East. The extension of service and production commodity chains into the East and the region’s growth as a consumer market has gone hand in hand with their low tax, flexible labor laws and low state spending. In short the growth model is predicated on the very things which the Human Capital Index measures as being lacking.

The Lisbon Council solutions – reformed universities, on the job skills training, investment in knowledge, skills and innovation – require a shift in the growth model and the question is, how to achieve that within the context of macro and micro economic orthodoxy, the EU promotion of mobility and double-think about brain drain. At the time of the formation of the EU single market there was a response – the EU as a whole had to invest in the conditions for more and better jobs and a geographical spread so that capital, technology and knowledge are shifted away from concentration and centralization. The problems and solutions were posed in those terms which of course requires an increased European tax base and a commitment to significantly greater regional re-distribution and planning.

The challenges have always been clear and the solutions filled with all sorts of dilemmas which don’t even get a mention from the Lisbon Council. Human capital mantras suggest that the governments in Eastern Europe need to improve the supply of human capital, invest more in formal education, create their entrepreneurial universities and attract migrant (cheap) labor from the potentially massive new pool of Turkey etc. And so move themselves onto a different growth path. Perhaps.

One thing that is increasingly clear, is that the Economics of Education and the Human Capital theorists, and this report comes straight out of that stable, can offer descriptions based on such measures as its Human Capital Index, but its policy relevance is restricted and amounts to the same old same old. Quite how societies approaching the sorts of collapse envisaged in the report would react and what shibboleths of neo-liberal human capital development models would then be questioned seems to be beyond their remit. A pity.

Peter Jones

EU Blue Cards: not a blank cheque for migrant labour – says Barroso

berlin1.jpgThe global competition for skilled labor looks like getting a new dimension – the EU is planning to issue “blue cards” to allow highly skilled non-Europeans to work in the EU. On Tuesday 23 October José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, announced plans to harmonize admission procedures for highly qualified workers. As President Barroso put it:

With the EU Blue Card we send a clear signal: Highly skilled people from all over the world are welcome in the European Union. Let me be clear: I am not announcing today that we are opening the doors to 20 million high-skilled workers! The Blue Card is not a “blank cheque”. It is not a right to admission, but a demand-driven approach and a common European procedure.

The Blue Card will also mean increased mobility for high-skilled immigrants and their families inside the EU.

Member States will have broad flexibility to determine their labour market needs and decide on the number of high-skilled workers they would like to welcome.

With regard to developing countries we are very much aware of the need to avoid negative “brain drain” effects. Therefore, the proposal promotes ethical recruitment standards to limit – if not ban – active recruitment by Member States in developing countries in some sensitive sectors. It also contains measures to facilitate so-called “circular migration”. Europe stands ready to cooperate with developing countries in this area.

Further details are also available in this press release, with media and blog coverage available via these pre-programmed Google searches. As noted the proposed scheme would have a common single application procedure across the 27 Member States and a common set of rights for non-EU nationals including the right to stay for two years and move within the EU to another Member State for an extension of one more year.

The urgency of the introduction of the blue card is framed in terms of competition with the US/Canada/Australia – the US alone attracts more than half of all skilled labor while only 5 per cent currently comes to the EU. This explanation needs to be seen in relation to two issues which the GlobalHigherEd blog has been following: the competition to attract and retain researchers and the current overproduction of Maths, Science and Technology graduates. Can the attractiveness of the EU as a whole compete with the pull of R&D/Industrial capacity in the US and the logic of English as the global language? Related to this obviously is the recent enlargement to 27 Member States where there are ongoing issues around the mobility of labor within the EU? We will continue to look beneath the claims of policy initiatives to see the underlying contradictions in approaches. The ongoing question of the construction of a common European labor market and boosting the attractiveness of EU higher ed institutions may be at least as important here as the supposed skilled labor shortages.

Futurology demographics seem to be at the heart of the explanation of the need to intensify the recruitment of non-EU labour – according to the Commission the EU will have a shortage of 20 million workers in the next 20 years, with one third of the EU population over the age of 65. Interestingly though, there is no specification of the kinds of skill shortages that far down the line – the current concern is that the EU currently receives 85 % of global unskilled labour.

Barroso and the Commission continue to try to handle the contradictions of EU brain attractiveness strategies by the preferred model of:

  • fixed term contracts;
  • limitations on recruitment from developing countries in sensitive sectors; and,
  • the potentially highly tendentious notion of ‘circular migration’.

High skilled labour is effectively on a perpetual carousel of entry to and exit from the labour market with equal rights while in the EU which get lost at the point of departure from the EU zone only to reappear on re-entry, perhaps?

According to Reuters the successful applicants for a blue card would only need to be paid twice the minimum wage in the employing Member State – and this requirement would be lifted if the applicant were to be a graduate from an EU higher education institution. Two things are of interest here then – the blue card could be a way to retain anyone with a higher education qualification and there are implications for the continuing downward pressure on wage rates for the university educated. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out in relation to the attractiveness of EU universities if a blue card is the implied pay-off for successful graduation.

Peter D. Jones