In 2001, European ministers declared that students are full members of the academic community, that they are competent and constructive partners in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and that they should participate in and influence the organization and content of education (Prague Communiqué 2001). In 2003, Mi-nisters declared that students are full partners in higher education governance. They also pointed to the importance of students achieving their full potential for European identity, citizenship and employ-ability (Berlin Communiqué 2003). Both statements were made in the early stages of the Bologna Process, but it is worth noting that they were not made in the Bologna Declaration. In 1999, students were present at the conference that launched the Euro-pean Higher Education Area, but they were there because they had invited themelves and they were relatively marginal to the pro-ceedings Two years later, students were at the center of the Bologna Process.
This article will look briefly at the for-malities as well as the realities of student participation in higher education gover-nance at three levels: institutional, national and European. It will also ask whether in-creased possibilities for participation in higher education governance translate into students engaging as citizens in broader so-ciety. Data on student participation is scarce, and the information for this article stems essentially from studies conducted by the Council of Europe and partners.
Formalities of representation
Formal provision for student participation at some level of institutional governance is nearly universal in Europe. In all cases, stu-dent representatives are a minority group on the governance bodies, and they most typically have between 10 and 20 per cent of the seats (Persson 2004: 41-43).
This is in keeping with the traditional Eu-ropean model for higher education gover-nance, where representation is a function of the group’s relevance to the key missions of higher education – teaching and research – and to a lesser extent to its numbers within the institution. Incidentally, the principle argument that representation on higher edu-cation governance bodies should be linked to competence in the core missions is being weakened by the inclusion of external repre-sentatives on the governance bodies since this representation for the most part means that faculty no longer have a majority of the seats.
Finally, institutional representation is an issue not only of numbers but also of the status and role of the representatives once they have been elected. In most countries, student representatives have the right to speak and vote on all issues that come be-fore the governing body. In the case of eight countries, however, respondents in the sur-vey reported that student representatives cannot vote on certain issues. While these issues may vary, they typically include staff, financial and curricula issues.
At the level of education systems, the for-mal provision for student representation is much weaker. At most, half of the countries surveyed had some kind of provision for such representation (Persson 2004: 40)1. The arguments here are somewhat different than at the institutional level. There is a clear political responsibility for the edu-cation system exercised by the minister and the national assembly, and both are deter-mined through general elections. Political decisions may be made following consul-tation with groups concerned, and this seems to be a common pattern at the level of higher education systems. In many cases, there is also student representation in re-lation to the national rectors’ conference, there is formal and informal contact with the national parliamentary assembly and there are various other forms of consul-tation at system level (Persson 2004: 48-51). Absence of formal provision for repre-sentation therefore does not imply absence of de facto consultation and representation.
At the European level, the most relevant framework in which to assess student repre-sentation is the EHEA. Here, the formal issue is relatively straightforward: the mem-bers of the EHEA are 46 countries and the European Commission, while the European Students’ Union (ESU) is a consultative member along with a number of other IGOs and NGOs.
Activity and influence
An overall impression is that many stu-dents are relatively uncommitted to par-ticipating in higher education governance. This does not translate into a problem with filling elective offices. Except for some in-stances at faculty and in particular depart-ment level, it does not seem difficult to find enough students willing to serve on gover-nance bodies.
To what extent student representatives ex-ercise influence is a matter of some diver-gence. On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high influ-ence) in the Council of Europe survey, re-spondents spread fairly evenly between ca-tegories 1-4 for their perception of student influence at national level, with few mar-king category 5. For student influence at institutional level, most respondents mar-ked category 3 with some marking cate-gories 2 and 4 and very few the extreme ca-tegories 1 and 5. When asked about influ-ence on specific policy areas within insti-tutions, respondents indicated that student representatives have greater influence over “immediate issues” such as social issues, the learning environment and educational con-tent than over “hard” issues such as budgets and the recruitment of faculty. When asked to differentiate their perceptions of student influence according to the level of gover-nance, student and ministerial represen-tatives thought this influence was strongest at institutional and faculty level, whereas academic representatives thought it was strongest at national and faculty level (Persson 2004: 59-68, Bergan 2004: 21-22).
There is, to my knowledge, no similar sur-vey on the perception of student influence within the Bologna Process. As a long stan-ding active member of the Bologna Follow Up Group and several working groups, I would, however, venture to say that this in-fluence is fairly strong and that it has been increasing over the years. Activity is of course not an entirely reliable measure of in-fluence – one may feel one needs to parti-cipate very actively in discussions precisely because one is not sufficiently heard. Never-theless, my own perception is that the in-fluence of the ESU representatives in the BFUG is very real. As one example, ESU was an essential part of the coalition of countries and organizations that managed to tone down the reference to ranking and classification in the Leuven Communiqué (2009).
Influence is a matter not only of formal position and legal competence, but also of the real competence and power of per-suasion of the individuals who represent a given group in a given context at a given time. Within the BFUG, ESU has had a suc-cession of highly competent and professio-nal representatives who have been able to engage in issues well beyond those that may be perceived as “narrow student issues” and who have been able to articulate European perspectives. Both engagements have in-creased their influence and credibility. In the words of an ESU member: “The thing that makes a student representative now-adays different from 100 or even 40 years ago is the fact that students are now, for the first time, being engaged in reshaping the whole education system, and making sure that the changes experienced in higher edu-cation are directed towards benefiting stu-dents” (Santa 2009).
While there is, to my knowledge, no re-search on how student influence may vary over time at different levels of governance, it seems reasonable to assume that the vari-ation may be particularly marked at the lower levels of governance, where the pool of potential representatives among students as well as among faculty is small. In a small departmental governing body, the influence of competent and well articulated student representatives may far outweigh the nu-merical strength of the student represen-tation, while the opposite may easily be the case if the student representatives are inex-perienced and unaware of the broader issue of higher education policy.
A broader problem is with the partici-pation of those students who do not run for office. The basic act of democracy is voting. Even if it may be argued that restricting one’s democratic participation to voting at periodic intervals is an insufficient commit-ment to democracy, democracy is inconceiv-able without fair elections. It is therefore a reason for concern that turnout in student elections is rarely higher than 50 per cent, with the 16-30 per cent range the most frequently participation rate reported in the survey (Persson 2004: 57). This compares unfavorably with participation rates in most national elections.
Students as citizens
The latest point brings us to a consider-ation of students as citizens in broader so-ciety. If students are not strongly engaged in issues of higher education governance, aside from the committed few, is this because they are busily engaged as active citizens in broader democratic society or is it because they focus on their individual rather than on societal concerns? The issue is whether actors emphasize the economic role of higher education at the expenses of other purposes, such as preparation for citizen-ship, personal development and – at least partly – the development and maintenance of a broad and advanced knowledge base (Bergan 2005).
The aspiration that higher education should develop the values and attitudes of citizenship along with more labor market oriented competences has strong advocates (Council of Europe 2007, 2008: 31; AAC&U 2007), but it is not universally shared by stu-dents and faculty (Plantan 2004: 114-123). The findings of the project clearly indicate that many faculty and staff consider demo-cratic participation to be a matter for each individual student to decide and that such concerns should not impinge upon the insti-tution’s core mission of teaching and re-search. According to this view, the main pur-pose of higher education is to train profes-sionals to high standards in their discip-lines. In the words of Frank Plantan: “Eu-rope and the United States share a common problem of excess vocationalism among stu-dents” (ibid., 114).
Societies are governed through political processes. Where students and academics do engage in political activity, there seems to be no clear pattern as to what kind of politicians they will be or whether their academic background will influence their views. Academics are found on the demo-cratic left, right and center as well as in many varieties of undemocratic political movements, ranging from the far right (such as e.g. the Nazi and Fascist movements in the 1930s and 1940s) to the far left (e.g. Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigades or Com-munist regimes in Europe) and including undemocratic regimes with a less pro-nounced ideological basis (Bergan 2004: 25-26).
Students overall do not seem to be more active than “average citizens”, and it seems likely that the relative lack of committed student citizens is a part of a more general tendency toward increased emphasis on each individual’s private sphere and less on engagement in the public room. This ten-dency is sometimes reversed temporarily by major events, such as those of 1968, the quashing of the student movement in China in 1989, which led to worldwide mass pro-test with strong student participation, and the Obama campaign, which led to a resur-gence of civic spirit.
This, however, does not seem likely to alter a basic trend toward emphasis on the private over the public sphere, and societal discourse reinforces the trend. Referring to students as clients rather than as members of the academic community is not only doubtful as a description of the real situ-ation in contemporary European societies. It is of even greater concern if taken as an aspiration. Clients have no intrinsic interest in the governance and internal arrange-ments of the service provider, and if the provider does not deliver satisfactorily, the clients can easily go elsewhere. Members of a society, on the other hand, have a funda-mental stake in the well being of their so-cieties and should work to improve their societies if they are unhappy with the current state of affairs. The impact on our higher education institutions and systems as well as our societies at large will be dra-matic if students were to see themselves as clients rather than as members of society.
Formal provision for student participation in higher education governance is nearly universal in Europe, and in particular at institutional and faculty level, and, with some exceptions, it does not seem overly difficult to find enough candidates for elec-tive office as student representatives. More broadly, however, participation by students in higher education governance and insti-tutional life as well as students’ commit-ment to society at large as citizens seems lower than desirable even if the state of our knowledge is imperfect. Exploring the mech-anisms and attitudes that lead to this lack of commitment would seem to be an interest-ing research proposal for social scientists and one of which democratic societies would be in great need. Professional compe-tence aimed at the labor market is impor-tant but only if students and faculty engage more broadly on societal issues will we develop the kind of education we need. In this, we may echo the Chilean sociologist Eugenio Tironi: the answer to the question “what kind of education do we need?” is to be found in the answer to another question: “what kind of society do we want?” (Tironi 2005).