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New agora?

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How do we achieve both harmonisation and diversity? Simple: standardise the systems, but build democracy and participation for all...

What university do we want for our future European society? That question lies at the heart of the Bologna Process.

Like many European projects, the Bologna Process set out from good intentions. The aim was to harmonise Europe’s various university systems and thereby allow a truly European ‘higher education area’ to emerge. In principle, nothing controversial: and it was for that reason that 29 ministers of Education, of the Left as well as the Right, signed the two accords of the Bologna Declaration in 1999.

Harmonisation and Diversity: a Gamble

Since then, advocates and opponents of this text have locked swords. There are those who deplore the commercialisation of higher education to which it may lead, on the other hand, there are those who see it as the only means to save Europe’s universities – perhaps the only means to build the European ideal, on the grounds that, as long as education remains a national affair, a European consciousness can never be nurtured.

Let’s take a look at the figures. In the US, where tuition fees are far more expensive, more than 60% of 24-34 year olds are university graduates, while in France, where the fees are far more modest, that number barely passes 40%. Thus the privatisation of higher education does not necessarily reduce the population’s access to it.

At the same time, it is important to note that research by Europe’s public universities remains influential and is still holding up with that done in American institutions. That is proof that public service can still be combined with competitiveness. So what does all that add up to? Do we need a higher education system that is public, private, or mixed?

These questions are crucial, certainly, but simply in asking them we often entertain a more fundamental issue: what is to be done. The university seems so familiar to us that we have ceased to reflect on what it is and what we would like it to be. What university do we really want, and what social functions do we expect it to fulfil?

Students or Citizens?

As the study “EuroStudent 2000” shows only too well, Europe’s students lead very different lives. And that is primarily because to be young and a priori a student means different things in different countries. In Southern Europe, one’s studies mainly constitute an intense initial education to be pursued without side activities, whilst in the North many students start their studies having already had professional experience. Behind the same occupation (that is, being a student) hide as many situations as there are countries. There are different publics, different teachings and different social purposes.

It thus falls to each of us to build a new university which is truly European, adapted to the new European society that we are to build together. A university that will be a centre of research, transmission of knowledge and academic excellence – as the Bologna Declaration wishes – but that will also be a place in which future citizens are created.

We need a university that is accessible to the majority, in which everyone has their opportunity. In many establishments, a teaching that is too theoretical offers only a poor perspective into professional employment. Everyone agrees that we need an education both theoretical and practical.

In an environment that is continually changing, having a continuing education over the course of one’s life allows one to remain competitive in the marketplace for jobs. This element is at the heart of the thinking behind the Bologna Process and carries with it a radical change of perspective. Effectively, the idea of life-long learning means that there are always new things to learn: neither diploma nor doctorate are absolute limits.

Two Proposals

We must make the European university of tomorrow ‘philosophical’ in the etymological sense of the word. That is, we must ensure that it nurtures ‘the love of knowledge’, curiosity, and civic participation. For that end, two points should be added to the declaration made by participating countries:

1) To set democracy to work within the university.

We must engage in this all across Europe, in every establishment, students, teachers and others must have a genuine voice in what goes on. The Bologna Declaration hopes to make every university a school of democracy – we learn by doing.

2) We must make a place for student life in every university.

University courses supply knowledge, internships supply experience. Voluntary work and public action supply civil participation. To complete a project or participate in a society are always educative experiences. It is thus essential to give them a place at the heart of each university because they fulfil an essential function. We must put public spaces at the disposition of student societies, we must formalise their right to book rooms and lecture halls.

If we want to renew the taste for democracy, if we want to ensure that students are not just consumers of knowledge, but producers, then we must let them have free reign in their universities. Let us give student societies the means to achieve their ambitions, create more spaces on the campus to ‘be together’. Rather than reward active students, let us simply give them the means to be so. Let us take the risk of a university that is participatory and democratic, the European university of the new agora!

Translated from L’Université, nouvelle agora