Higher Education Institutions and their activities remain central to the development of society and the strengthening of those democratic values which we all cherish. The Lisbon strategy acknowledged that higher education is absolutely crucial for the achievement of its goals. Access and equity are among the more important core values on which the further development of our institutions of tertiary education are based. The responsibilities which society requires Institutions of Higher Learning to meet have never been so heavy as now. These responsibilities will continue to expand in complexity and in consequence. The community expects these institutions to help anticipate and foresee change in the world of work. This is a time of major challenges but also of great opportunities. Our institutions must continue to be not only academically excellent but also financially sustainable.
The problem of mutual recognition of accreditation is still with us although the recent formation of a consortium of accrediting agencies from a number of European Countries, ECA is a step in the right direction. The funding of European Institutions of Higher Education and the consequent matter of tuition fees remains a controversially hot topic and was last year the theme of an EUA spring conference in Hamburg. Students through their ESIB representatives, I think cogently and correctly, argued that tuition fees would be nowhere near the contributions needed to fill the funding gap. It will only mean that disadvantaged students would find it more difficult to gain access to tertiary education unless adequate student support systems are put in place.
Governments and Higher Education Institutions must together be committed to a long-term vision of a Europe of Knowledge. Naturally higher education should remain first and foremost a public responsibility. A Bologna Seminar proposed by France in the Berlin-Bergen work programme and organised by the French Ministry of National Education in co-operation with ES1B was held at the Sorbonne University in January 2005, the University which saw the birth of the Bologna Process in 1998; revealed that competitiveness and the social dimension can and should co-exist and be comfortable bed fellows. Social cohesion and economic development are interdependent. Equity of access for under privileged students coming from poor families or minority groups is of fundamental importance in trying to achieve social cohesion. Widening access for the underprivileged has, besides important social implications, also very relevant economic effects.
The main aim of the European Access Network, which is an international, independent, non-governmental educational association, seeks to promote access to higher education and training in all European countries for those who are currently under-represented, whether for reasons of gender, ethnic origin, nationality, age, disability, income level, family background, vocational training or earlier educational disadvantage. In the age in which we are living, with Globalization and Information Technology taking pride of place, Higher Education has increasingly come to hold the key to one’s future healthy income. Hard work and greater efforts rarely make up for lack of training, required knowledge and desired skills.
Lack of education, particularly at the higher level, is behind the low economic mobility that has reappeared since 1980, even in the so called more developed countries, particularly in the UK and the USA. I fear that we may well allow Higher Education to stray from its core mission – successfully training all those who are capable and willing of completing their education to the highest level possible. For this to happen, fairness and transparency in university admissions are essential. I do not think that we are anywhere near achieving the Lisbon objective that 50% of our young people should complete Higher Education.
Access is not the only stumbling block that students from lower income or minority groups have to overcome. Economic pressures on students matter – and matter a great deal. What educational institutions do to retain these students and ensure they successfully navigate the various pitfalls they may come across during their training periods is also of crucial importance. Higher Education will continue to be the basis of economic opportunity in this information age. It forms the cornerstone of Knowledge production. We must not fail our young students. We ought not to allow them to simply give up because they perceive a place in an Institution of Higher Learning as unattainable. We must not let them be scared of completing their education because they dread involving themselves in debt.
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