During the Education in times of crisis-conference in Copenhagen, July 2009, Dirk Vandamme stated, together with Education at a Glance (EAG) 2009 and 2010, that it was high time for governments to invest in higher education, a safe investment for a way out of the global economic crisis.  However, reports from 23 national unions of students across Europe have shown that not all of the ministers of Education were able to reach their ministers of Finance.  To the contrary a number of governments have agreed to massive budget cuts for education of up to 40% in for example Latvia, with the interesting twist that the budget cuts have mainly affected students’ support services but not research and development for example.

 

The crisis has also served as an excuse for many institutions to make the final push towards introducing or raising cost-sharing systems, directly affecting the students’ financial situation and access to higher education, but also the quality and accessibility of student support services (including grants and loans). The European Students’ Union believes, together with the EAG reports, that education is indeed a way out of the crisis : by skilling students, up-skilling workers and innovating in society, education provides the exact answer to mistakes that have been made in the past and caused this situation.  It was therefore very unfortunate to see both governments and institutions seizing the opportunity to withdraw from investing in a main cause of welfare of their societies.

 

One could argue that students should contribute to their own careers and elevation of future incomes, but one could also argue that the skilled student and soon to be worker will contribute in a larger scale to its society, by working, by innovating, by staying more healthy, by producing and consuming and by paying taxes.  Taxes that can and should be used to provide his or her education, and that of his or her children.  Although governments have been withdrawing from investments in education, we have not seen that cutback reflected in the taxation systems, nor have we heard what priority higher than education deserved additional investment.  Contrary to the signals of the OECD, countries have been withdrawing from their responsibility of educating their society, keeping the students burdened with debts that postpone their participation in society and hinder them to spread out their full personal and academic capabilities.

 

Nevertheless, one could further argue that investment into research and innovations has increased. And this is true in many places, indeed. As well as the truth that the investment into student services, housing, transportation or other facilities that are a very core needs undermining each student’s life has not moved from the point of death. Modern labs are not a substitute of food or roof over the head of one engaged in academia. Higher education is a complex system that consists of human beings, their intellectual, social and also physical needs. This cannot be forgotten while making decisions concerning the development of future educational institutions.

 

In addition, there are some prejudices that the current crisis is a main cause of the enormously high youth unemployment rates. However, one has to remain honest and admit that students have never been the most popular workforce in the job market. Claiming that the reason is an unstable market and that the situation should change over time is ignoring that the problems are in many more layers and the degree of them makes a largely potential group of the society vulnerable and cynical towards its future prospects of the career. A new approach towards existing problems and education is needed and therefore this is certainly not the time to limit the possibilities of both students and institutions in education.

 

Student life has changed over the years.  Financially burying yourself to pass for a degree that does no longer guarantee a job in an unstable market or completion of what you invested in is not the way to promote education and will only enhance the problematic situation we have found ourselves in – when students are dropping out because their education is no longer affordable.  Education needs to regain its value with the help of quality assurance and a larger student-centred approach to teaching methods and desired learning outcomes.  All of this does cost money, but who said it wasn’t high time anymore to invest in higher education?

 

Bert Vandenkendelaere
Chairperson
European Students' Union (ESU)