Social Dimension

1. Introduction

The European Students’ Union (ESU) believes that the social dimension is a crucial aspect of the Bologna Process for ensuring that the student body mirrors the diversity of the population. This action line shall not only benefit individual students, but society as a whole through preparing students from diverse backgrounds for active citizenship while providing the competence and skills for their future lives and enabling social mobility. (ESU 2012: 73)

The social dimension was first mentioned in the Bologna Process in 2001, when on the initiative of ESU, “the need ... to take account of the social dimension” (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2001: 3) was acknowledged. A clearer commitment was made at the Bergen Ministerial Conference in 2005 with the promise to take measures to widen access to higher education (ESU 2012). Todays aspiration, “that the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should reflect the diversity of our populations” (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2007: 5) dates back to 2007. It can be used as the definition of the social dimension in the Bologna Process and serves as the basic assumption of this article. In 2012, the Bucharest Communiqué (ibid. 2012) unfortunately focused mainly on the relationship between the social dimension and the labour market. However, the ministers agreed to adopt national measures to widen participation in higher education as well as to reduce inequalities. (Kaiser et al. 2015) This goal should be reached by the establishment of National Access plans (ibid.), which ESU strongly encourages to be drafted and implemented.

2. Main findings

The social dimension as a policy priority?

According to the National Unions of Students, higher education institutions consider the social dimension as more or less a high priority in only eight out of 36 countries: Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Croatia, Bulgaria, Estonia, the United Kingdom and Slovenia. This poor figure is only outdone by the unions' opinions of how important the social dimension is for their governments, where only seven unions reported positively: Malta, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia (one of two unions) and the United Kingdom.

Is the social dimension a priority for your national governments?

When the National Unions of Students were asked if progress has been made on the social dimension since 2012, the answers varied widely, with the majority answering that the social dimension has not been a priority, and therefore no progress has been made whatsoever. Some unions reported that steps are underway at the present time, but no results could be demonstrated yet, while others reported that very significant progress has been made. A surprisingly large number of the unions reported that they feel as though they are the only stakeholder with any interest in the social dimension, and that neither governments nor institutions show interest in taking action.National targets are in place in Estonia, Serbia, Malta, the United Kingdom, Armenia, Ireland and France, and new legislation was developed in seven further countries. Whereas some unions note that while the data collected may show improvement, it was not due to any coordinated action on the national level.


In many countries measures against discrimination are not a national prerogative, and the institutions are responsible for most of these measures, regrettably leading to a wide diversity of uncoordinated measures and implementations.

When asked, unions from ten out of 36 countries reported that there are no clear procedures in place at institutions to prevent discrimination. Perhaps more concerning is that from nine countries, unions reported that such procedures exist, but only on paper, or are not functioning. The geographic spread of these two categories was broad. In the majority of cases (27), students with physical disabilities are protected from discrimination, which is very encouraging to note. On the other end of the spectrum, unions reported that only seven countries provide protection for mature students (those over the age of 25 at entry to higher education). Similarly low numbers report protective measures for students from immigrant backgrounds (10) or for students with children or other dependants (12), or protection from discrimination based on the gender of students (11).

Regarding the measures in place to prevent discrimination based on the gender of students, one union observed that the measures protect only one gender, which may be appropriate in certain cases (admission to certain fields of study dominated by one gender etc.), but not in all, and in fact may ultimately be damaging in a long‐term perspective. The typical example here is humanities and engineering studies, where men are often underrepresented in one area, and women the other. (Gwosć et. al 2015: 65)

Measures to prevent discrimination based on students' religious affiliation are in place in twelve countries. Here, one union mentioned their own surprise about the level of discrimination reported for one particular religious group. Though regrettable that only one religious group is provided protection, this anecdote exemplifies the use of data collection, as it is significantly better to note the existence of a problem in order to develop measures to tackle it, than to assume that everything is fine.

Data collection and definition of underrepresented groups

When asked about how underrepresented groups of students are defined in their countries, a majority of the responding unions mentioned students from a low socio‐economic background (28 out of 39 respondents from 36 countries), students with physical disabilities (26) and students with psychosocial disabilities/mental health issues (24). Assumed to be problematic for nearly half of the respondents is the representation of LGBTQ* students (18), students with children/dependents (22), students from immigrant background (20), students from different ethnic groups (22), specific gender of students (16), students with chronic health issues (22) and mature students (21). Underrepresentation in the context of religious affiliation of students was only reported by seven respondents. Three respondents reported no underrepresented groups whatsoever.Individual countries’ unions report other groups that the unions identify as being severely underrepresented. In Lithuania, students who grew up in state foster homes, also commonly referred to as state orphans, are highly underrepresented. In Ireland the same applies for members of the Irish Traveller Community. The status of LGBTQ* students could not be reported in Macedonia, since the government does not officially recognise them.

Although these answers point to the fact that there is a long way to go until the student body mirrors the countries’ populations, only eleven unions from ten countries specify that steps are taken to define underrepresented groups in any official document that feeds into or is the basis of national education policy. These definitions were made in a variety of ways, ranging from access plans (UK, Ireland), to general legislation (Finland, Estonia, Belgium, Iceland), to legislation and programmes tackling the underrepresentation of specific groups: Slovakia and Switzerland have legislation concerning students with physical disabilities; Hungary is conducting a special program for Roma students; and in Germany there are some lists of underrepresented groups, but they are incomplete. The far reaching lack of definitions of underrepresented groups correlates with the lack of adequate data provided. Not a single respondent reported that adequate data is available for all different groups, while twelve respondents found adequate data for some groups. Some data is available according to ten member unions, while 15 reported that no adequate or no data at all is available.

As this situation needs to be improved in order to address the issue of underrepresentation in higher education, ESU advocates for further efforts in data collection. Such efforts have been taking place in twelve countries, while some engagement is visible in another twelve countries. Little to no effort is made in 11 countries. These countries are mostly those currently having difficulties providing adequate data, which in turn prevents their ability to gain further insight into underrepresented groups. Besides data collection, action needs to be taken to increase the participation of underrepresented groups. For roughly half of the participating countries, some or little financial resources are allocated for this purpose, while only five countries have national targets for the participation of underrepresented groups in higher education which are actually followed up. Despite the prioritisation of widening the participation of underrepresented groups in the Bucharest Communiqué (Communiqué 2012), action in this regard is only taken in a minority of countries, which leads to the conclusion that there is a definite need of further, stronger efforts to be taken in the near future to meet the commitments that countries have made for themselves.

Is there any funding reserved for measures to increase participation of under‐represented groups?**


National access plans

National access plans have been encouraged by the Bucharest Communique (“We agree to adopt national measures for widening overall access to quality higher education.” (Communiqué 2012:1)) and further developed by the Bologna Follow‐Up Group Working Group on Social dimension and Lifelong Learning. Out of 35 countries reporting, access plans were reported to be successfully implemented only in the United Kingdom and in Bulgaria, while six more countries are still struggling the proper implementation of their action plans according to ESU’s member unions. Estonia is currently developing its action plan and ten additional countries are debating the implementation of such. Nevertheless, there are still 13 countries lacking any debate about action plans, and three countries for which ESU’s member unions do not know if actions are taken or not. ESU is aware of the fact that access plans demand a large effort, and that their implementation takes a considerable amount of time. While hopefully the discussions about access plans will lead to the drafting and implementation of them in the near future, the number of countries not even considering establishing an access plan is alarming.

Further encouragement is therefore needed to enhance the efforts of the countries to step up to this commitment. The endorsement of the strategy “Widening Participation for Equity and Growth” drafted by the Bologna Follow‐Up Group Working Group on Social dimension and Lifelong Learning would be a big step in this direction.


Completion rates have been an increasingly important topic for governments to address in the last few years, and for 16 out of 35 countries, unions report that policies are in place to prevent dropout. Seven countries report that measures are in place, but they are either only formal, or do not function in practise. For twelve countries no measures at all are reported.The most popular measures to combat dropout are counselling (23), additional financing (14) and social support groups (13). Unions from eleven countries report that tracking is being used. We are disappointed to note that only seven countries report that student‐centred learning (see chapter 8) is being used to combat dropout. For example the NESET‐report on Dropout and Completion in Higher Education in Europe highlights that the SCL‐approach and tools are crucial in reducing not only drop‐out rates but also improving grades (NESET 2013: 80).

We emphasise the fact that many measures which help to prevent dropout are not necessarily initiated with specifically this in mind. Social support groups are particularly identified by the unions as one of the measures which are not specifically targeted against dropout in all cases, but can play a significant role in this work.The low number of countries utilising tracking of students is a particular concern. In some cases it is reported that no reasons for dropout are identified, as the capacity of the authorities to identify the causes is limited by very poor, or because of nonexistent data collection. Another challenge identified is that the categorisation of students as “dropped‐out” is problematic – some may simply have changed their course of study, or taken a semester's break, for example, but are still included in this rather large category with no further explanation. Other countries report that while the government tracks dropout rates, it has taken no counter‐measures.

We stress again that incomplete or insufficient data can exaggerate certain problems, or hide other issues that may be the very basis of the problem.

Student support services

In the vast majority of countries, the unions consider their pure, traditional student supports (grants/loans) to be entirely insufficient. Many unions report that this support, though theoretically available to many, is in fact only accessible by a very few (as low as 3% in Latvia), or where the support is available to larger numbers of students, the support available is extremely limited. For instance, the accommodation allowance for students in Czech Republic is as low as 10 to 20 EUR per month. In the Netherlands, a complete redesign of the student support mechanisms has eliminated the student grant entirely and replaced it with a loan. There is great diversity between countries which focus on need‐based grants for students from low socio‐economic backgrounds, and academic scholarships without any other criteria. It should be made quite clear that academic scholarships awarded based solely on academic results are not considered relevant to the social dimension, unless balancing mechanisms exist to ensure that the socio‐economic background or status of these award winners adequately reflects the diversity of the society. Direct financial support for students is not only an important factor for the social dimension, but is as well a crucial part of financing higher education. Therefore, further information about the grant and loan systems in Europe can be found in the chapter about Financing of Higher Education. When asked which other forms of student support was the most under‐resourced in their country, the unions overwhelmingly cited housing as being the number one problem area. DSF, the National Union of Students in Denmark, reported that the student grant system is meant to support students so that they can focus exclusively on their studies, but numerous studies have contradicted this aim, which is further compounded by the lack of affordable student housing. VSS‐UNES‐USU (Switzerland) experiences much the same as their Danish colleagues; “apartments in cities with universities are virtually unaffordable by students.” LSA (Latvia) report that both the volume and standard of student housing are at a critically low level. Housing was also highlighted as one of the single largest problems for students by the unions of Macedonia, Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Romania (particularly for students with physical disabilities ) and France. Other services identified by several unions as severely lacking were psychological support services, career support services, and health services. Unions from 16 out of 36 countries reported that student support services have been cut since 2012. In the United Kingdom (England/Wales/Northern Ireland), the union reports that the Access to Learning Fund has nearly been completely eliminated, disability support funding is due to be cut significantly next year, and overall any funding to support the widening of participation has been significantly reduced. For England and Wales it should be noted that the responsibility for ensuring the social dimension in higher education was reverted back to the institutions from the national government in the recent past, in what seems to be a backwards step. However, the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland is somewhat better.

The federalised system in Germany shows widely varied implementation of national directives. Fzs, the German union, reported that in some of the states (Länder) student support services have been cut by up to 50%, similar reports have come from Italy where the regional funding bodies have elected to cut their support for students.

In Finland, cuts have been more directed against personnel, leading to certain instances of hundreds of support staff being laid off. Similar to many others, the Austrian union reported that the governmental support for student housing has been reduced. Three unions (France, Spain, Switzerland) reported that either subsidies for food have been cut, or prices in the cafeterias have increased. In isolation, this may seem like a small issue, but should be seen as yet another challenge being placed on students' already stretched wallets. Many unions report that singling out one single area where students are most pressured is challenging. The unions of Denmark, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Slovenia reported that almost every support mechanism has been cut.

3. Conclusions and considerations for the future

Despite the fact that the social dimension is a central action line of the Bologna process, it has not been prioritised in the majority of countries, according to the National Unions of Students participating in our survey. While ESU appreciates the efforts taken, more emphasis on the social dimension is needed in order to fulfill the commitments made and meet the targets set. Even if some progress has been made in some areas, the prevention of discrimination of underrepresented groups in higher education must be addressed more holistically, and the possibly affected groups need to be considered carefully and according to their specific needs. This can be supported by defining underrepresented groups according to a national access plan setting clear targets. To enable increased access to higher education, substantial funds must be allocated in order to not only define and describe underrepresentation with the help of data collection, but also to be able to implement concrete measures. It is crucial that not only access, but also progression and completion of higher education are taken into account.

The area of student support services has seen an era of stagnation and even cuts since 2012; in none of the countries were the services either described as sufficient or that the problems could be defined as only more or less pressing. To ameliorate the rather desolate situation in student support services, which especially affects underrepresented groups, these must be prioritised in public budgets. The support and well‐being of students and especially vulnerable groups is a public responsibility, and a sufficiently supported student community in its increasing diversity will contribute immensely to society as a whole.

4. Recommendations

● Despite numerous commitments to treat the social dimension as a priority, it was never treated as such in the majority of European countries. To be able to de facto reach the representation of the diversity of European populations in higher education, the action line of the social dimension must be transformed from paper to reality and more concrete measures must be implemented.

● The introduction and further implementation of access plans must be significantly pushed forward as access plans are excellent tools to set clear targets to improve equal representation in higher education.

● To further support access, progression and completion of higher education for underrepresented groups, efforts in collecting fit‐for‐purpose data need to be intensified; a vital prerequisite in, amongst others, developing adequate support measures.

● The consequences of data collection and its analysis must lead to clearly defined plans and implemented measures. Proper implementation of such measures is highly dependent of sufficient funding which must be allocated from public sources.

5. References

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2001). Towards the European Higher Education Area.

Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Prague on May 19, 2001.
Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2007). London Communiqué.

Towards the European Higher Education Area: Responding to Challenges in a Globalized World.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2012). Making the Most of Our Potential: Consolidating the European Higher Education Area. Bucharest Communiqué.

European Students’ Union (2012). Bologna with Student Eyes 2012. Brussels: European Students’ Union.
Gwosć C., Hauschildt K., Netz N., Mishra S. (2015). Social and economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe.
Synopsis of Indicators. EUROSTUDENT V. Bielefeld: Bertelsmann.

Kaiser F., O Maolain A., Vikmane L. (2015). “No future for the social dimension?” in Curaj A., Matei, L., Pricopie, R., Salmi, J.,

Scott, P. (Eds.) The European Higher Education Area: Between Critical Reflections and Future Policies,
New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer Open, pp. 457–74.

Quinn J. (2013). Drop-out and Completion in Higher Education in Europe among students from under-represented groups. Network of Experts on Social Aspects of Education and Training. Brussels: European Union.