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The ESIB and The Europeanization of Higher Education

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Default profile picture roberto foa

As the struggle over higher education shifts to the European level, so too must its combatants: governments, chancellors, and, not least of all, a small organisation called the ESIB.

The world of European organisations is populated by whole alphabets of undecipherable acronyms. Some of them are well known, like the ECB or the ECJ, others, such as the ECA or the ESA, are known only by specialist groups. And there are those, like the ESIB, which would register only raised eyebrows from the average European studies student.

Yet, like most European organisations, the ESIB, or the “National Unions of Students in Europe”, is more important than one would guess from judging by the number of people who can identify it. An umbrella organisation of the 50 NUSs (National Union of Students) in 37 European countries, the ESIB represents some 11 million students, making it one of the largest student organisations on the globe. With such a large membership, then, what is the significance of the ESIB?

Unfortunately, the answer, so far, is not much. As an umbrella organisation, many of the duties we associate with a student union remain delegated to the national level. But with the Europeanization of higher education reform in the wake of the Bologna process, that could soon change. Indeed, it may have to: as the battle ground for higher education reform shifts from the national to the European level, it is inevitable that some of these responsibilities will transfer from the individual National Unions of Students to their collective European organisation.

The debates surrounding the Bologna Process provide a good example of this. It began in 1998, when the ministers of education from Germany, UK, France and Italy met at La Sorbonne in Paris, where they signed the so called “Sorbonne declaration” calling for the harmonization of the architecture of the European Higher Education System. The initial four were soon joined by almost all other European countries, such that by the time education ministers met again in Bologna in 1999 to bring into effect the declarations made at Sorbonne, there were suddenly 29 of them. In principle, the Bologna Process could well lead to one of the most radical upheavals in European Higher Education since the explosion of the university system during the 1960s.

Ostensibly however, the goal of the Bologna Process was rather dry and technical in nature - to create a European Higher Education Area by the year 2010. Yet as countless European projects know only too well: to set a goal is one thing, to lay out the means is quite another.

As is often the case in Europeanization, European processes are used by national elites to push through policies that, for reasons of entrenched opposition or technical barriers, could not be achieved domestically. In the case of the Bologna process, this took the form of a push for the liberalisation and partial privatisation of European universities – or, in the harsh words of the ESIB, it meant that the Bologna process was being “abused to carry out other reforms which are only on the national agenda in the name of the Bologna process”. For example, according to one source “the Swiss government threatened to introduce tuition fees as a result of reforms made due to the Bologna process”, and “other countries made similar threats”.

For national governments, such moves have long been on the agenda. And with good reason: European universities languish in comparison with their well-funded, fee-paying US counterparts, and few governments have the political willpower to commit the billions of euros necessary to bring their university system up to scratch with their Atlantic competitors. In such circumstances, the introduction of tuition fees is the “easy option”: only that the resistance from existing national student organisations is, understandably, immense – as shown by the size and scale of anti-tuition and “top-up” fees demonstrations in the UK and Austria.

Hence the temptation to seek to introduce tuition fees “by the back door” – that is, through the door of European negotiations. For now, however, it seems that that door has once again been closed: though at the initial meeting of ministers in Sorbonne, there was no student representation, and at the second meeting in 1999, in the words of ESIB Communications Officer Thomas Nilsson, “only thanks to the Student Union of the University of Bologna were there any students present at all”, now the ESIB has become fully engaged in the Bologna Process. As a result, more controversial proposals to liberalise the European Higher Education sector have been put off the agenda, and attention has returned again to more mundane proposals to standardise Higher Education systems.

The events surrounding the Bologna process are a classic example of Europeanization, in the sense of the term given by Moravcsik, to refer to ways in which attempts by national actors to achieve domestic policy outcomes via European institutions necessitates a response via these institutions on the part of interest and pressure groups, thereby bringing political processes from a national to a European level. And if the proposals of the Bologna process succeed in achieving their stated goal of a European Higher Education Area by 2010, we can be sure that the ESIB will play an increasing role in the years to come.

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