Student Participation

The importance of involving students as partners in higher education decision making has been widely accepted for more than ten years, yet in practise we are far from reaching this goal. The 2001 Prague Communique stated, “Ministers affirmed that students should participate in and influence the organisation and content of education at universities and other higher education institutions,” and this was followed up in the Berlin Communique of 2003 with the statement “Students are full partners in higher education governance” and issued the call on “institutions and student organisations to identify ways of increasing actual student involvement in higher education governance.”

In reflecting on student participation in 2003, the Council of Europe’s Head of Division for Higher Education and Research, Sjur Bergan, reminded us that: “….higher education governance is at the heart of the Bologna Process and will be a key feature of the European Higher Education Area to be set up by 2010.” Though most countries have enshrined student participation in legislation, in practise the spectrum of involvement runs from ‘full/equal partners’ to ‘completely excluded’.

In recent years, discussion of the role of higher education institutions has been brought up at many different levels. Ideology and high levels of youth unemployment have contributed to trends commercialising higher education allowing HEIs to drift from their original mission and purpose. With information more accessible than ever and technology developing at incredible rates, the purpose of HEIs may have changed slightly, but the mission should be as relevant today as it was when such establishments were born. The role of students in achieving such missions is central. After all a university without any students is just a bunch of buildings. ESU firmly believes that “Students should be treated as members of the higher education community, sharing the responsibility and rights to govern this central institution of our civilisation” (ESU 2013).

In this chapter we will explore the recent trends around student participation in higher education governance, discuss how meaningful student involvement can be and examine some good practises we can draw recommendations from.

Main findings

Legislating for student participation
The importance of including students and their representatives in legislation, setting rules and regulations for higher education governance, both nationally and institutionally, has been highlighted for many years (ESU 2009, 2012). When asked about the current situation, unions from 29 countries indicated that legislation exists, however seven reported there is currently no existing legislation, while two unions explain they are actively working with the authorities to draft or finalise it.

Though none of the respondents reported that they are very satisfied with the enactment and implementation of existing legislation, 83% reported to be much or somewhat satisfied. There were issues raised with existing legislation related to limitations in certain areas. Some were concerned about the limitations of the legislation as it does not cover some HEI types, such as non-public HEIs, or the scope of the legislation is limited to institutional levels of decision-making excluding regional or national bodies. Others limit the involvement of students, preventing them from participation in activities including quality assurance, senior management elections and financial discussions.

Levels of student participation
Though many countries have legislation on student involvement, in practise the limitations vary and have a powerful impact. Over half of the NUSes reported limitations on participation in decision-making processes, some excluded students from the preparatory phases, such as planning and development activities or discussions, while others are excluded from the final decision-making phase, with only 45% reporting involvement in all stages.

Rates of student involvement remain very worrying with only 15 unions indicating students make up more than 20% of decision making bodies in HEIs, though this shows a slight improvement from 2012 when only 11 unions did. Nearly 75% of unions responded that students make up less than 20% of the decision making bodies which is a long way from being considered equal partners. Though the actual number of students at the table is just one factor, it has a clear effect on how student perceive how their input is being considered. Figure 04.01 shows us how students are considered in governance at the institutional level.

How do student perceive how they their input is considered?
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Alarmingly, over half of respondents indicated that student representatives are generally ‘seen but not heard’ at institutional and faculty level decision-making. Additionally, at the national level over 17% and at programme level over 20% of unions reported that they feel marginalised or completely excluded.

Is Bologna a driving force/involvement in student participation?
As the future of the Bologna Process is being discussed, it is important to reflect on the role it has played in national and institutional reforms. When asked if the Bologna Process has been a driving force toward increased and better student involvement, the responses were less than positive. Only ten unions believe the Bologna Process has had a significant effect on student participation. 24 reported little or no effect, and three others explained that it has had a negative effect. DSF, the National Union of Students in Denmark, reported that the Bologna Process is often used as an excuse for unrelated national reforms, and in many other cases it is used to seek limitations in student participation in higher education governance. When comparing the data with the 2012 Bologna With Student Eyes survey, a reduction is seen in the group reporting that Bologna has had a significant effect, an increase in those reporting little or no effect and three unions, including DSF (Denmark) and FAIRe (Portugal) again, report negative effects.


What is needed to achieve valuable and meaningful student participation?
In a set of focus groups held with unions in January 2015, participants were asked to discuss what is needed to achieve valuable and meaningful student involvement. The discussions were very positive and comprehensive, revolving around three pillars: representative and diverse student representatives, training and support, inclusive and accessible systems.

    • Figure 04.03 Meaningful Student Participation**

Representative and Diverse Student Representatives
The group agreed that representative representation means that the views of different students must be included at all levels. They listed the importance of including diverse perspectives including the diversity in genders, nationalities, backgrounds, ages and learning needs as some of the groups which must be reflected in representation structures. An example of ensuring balance in representation structures can be found in the selection process for the ESU Executive Committee which has gender quotas ensuring that each gender is represented by at least 40%.

Additionally, concerns were raised about the limitations students from certain faculties or levels of study face in being included in structures. The heavy workload of some professional courses such as medicine can be a barrier to involvement, as can the research or teaching responsibilities of Masters and PhD students.

Training and Support
With most student representatives completing 12 month mandates and many degrees lasting 3 to 4 years, the turnover of student representatives is extremely high. Training and orientation is an essential part of the handover process and excellent examples can be found across the NUSes. Each July USI, the Union of Students in Ireland, hold a one-week training for elected student representatives covering topics including public speaking, time management, engaging with higher education authorities and campaigning, as well as specific areas such as quality assurance and mental health.

HEIs and national bodies are essential in the induction of local and national representatives. Students who will hold seats on boards and councils should receive the appropriate practical information before their first meeting and have access to support throughout their mandate to ensure that they can participate fully without practical or administrative barriers.

Inclusive and Accessible systems
With so many student representatives being ‘seen but not heard’ (FIG 04.01), it is vital that student unions are accessible and foster inclusive atmospheres. There are numerous examples of student unions at local, national and international levels offering support and solidarity to each other as they face a number of common issues and share many successes. Within student unions and the HEI structures, natural groupings and networks are continuously repopulated and offer student activists support and stability. These networks tend to focus on common interests such as field or study but often cross over especially in the class or faculty representation structures.

When asked about the trends in such structures participants identified current practises that were important in achieving this in their country. LSA, the Student Union of Latvia, provides support including training and assistance in negotiations with officials for local students’ unions who face resistance or suppression at HEIs regarding their participation in decision-making processes and violations of legislation.

Independence of Student Unions
Overall, student unions appear to operate independently at national levels with 85% reporting that they are fully of mainly independent. This independence drops off considerably when we look at the institutional level, with closer to half of respondents indicating that they are fully or mainly independent and nearly a third stating some or little independence. At faculty level, over 40% indicate only some or little independence.

Conclusions and considerations for the future
Legislation for student involvement has slightly improved since 2012, but there are still countries without legislation, and there are many limitations impacting student participation in countries with legislation, but it is poorly implemented or has a limited scope.

In practise, students are still not considered equal partners in decision-making, and the situation at institutional level in most countries needs attention. The lack of support systems, orientation, mentorship, guidance and handovers for new student representatives inhibit meaningful participation. Those responsible for decision-making bodies, at all levels, have a duty to ensure that new student representatives are represented and supported in the established structures.

Student bodies naturally reorder themselves and select leaders, but greater involvement from other stakeholders is needed to ensure that they can participate fully and independently in governance structures. Student representation is in jeopardy if commodifying factors continue, which contribute to the view of students as customers or consumers of higher education or products of higher education, rather than equal partners.

Legislation should be revised to ensure that student representation is guaranteed.
Where legislation is limited in scope it should be revised, in consultation with NUSes, to ensure that student representation is guaranteed in all HEIs and at regional and national levels. The poor or improper enactment of legislation needs immediate attention to ensure an inclusive culture is fostered in decision making structures.

Support structures and activities are needed for new student representatives.
Decision-making structures must include students as active participants and representatives in the entire process of decision-making. Orientation and induction activities for new student representatives will contribute to improving this. Other barriers, particularly those arising from improper Bologna implementation, should be identified and addressed at all levels to ensure students are treated as the equal partners they are.

NUSes and students’ unions must be supported in providing training for student representatives.
To ensure NUSes and students’ unions can continue to provide high quality and inclusive training and support for student representatives they need to be supported with resources and expertise. As student representatives are limited in the time they spend in higher education and the student movement it is imperative that the training and supports available to them are suitable, accessible and high quality.

A platform for best practise exchange will be a valuable resource.
With so many excellent initiatives and successful practises for greater and meaningful student participation ongoing in many countries and HEIs, a coordinated project looking at these practises and the challenges some face would be very useful. A platform for sharing and peer learning between students’ unions and youth groups may be valuable and should be considered in consultation with students’ unions, youth groups and education stakeholders.

Bergan, S. (2003). “Student Participation in Higher Education Governance”. Council of Europe.
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 (2003).

“Towards the European Higher Education Area: Realising the European Higher Education Area.
Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on September 19, 2003”.

European Students’ Union (2009). “Bologna with Student Eyes 2009. Brussels: European Students’ Union”.

European Students’ Union (2013). “Policy Paper on public responsibility, governance and financing of higher education”.

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