INTERVIEW - Allan Päll, outgoing ESU Chairperson looks back on the time he spent at the European Students’ Union (ESU). According to him, ESU biggest challenge is Europe: “I think ESU can no longer escape the questions of how much power should be transferred to the European level concerning higher education.”
What were your biggest achievements in the past years?
Firstly I think in the past years, the student movement has returned to the roots of activism in many countries in Europe.
In this, ESU has also turned itself to be more oriented towards more concrete campaigning and becoming publicly much more visible than we were three years ago. This of course is teamwork. And it has allowed us to keep up the pressure on policy-makers.
I think our greatest achievement is that we have put a student-centered approach in the middle of policy discussions around higher education in Europe. And secondly, the tune has surely changed now in Europe and at least the Commission joined us in banging the drum of calling for more public investment into higher education rather than less.
What was your biggest disappointment?
Well, mostly that we allowed the ministers of higher education to get away with saying that the European Higher Education Area is ready in 2010. Which student actually sees or feels that? I think we lost quite a bit of momentum for positive higher education reform in Europe.
This of course comes in midst of economic and financial strains, but that is exactly why education should actually be higher up on the agenda. So all the financial cutbacks from the education sector or putting more cost on the learners is certainly something we need to be more effective in fighting.
What is main challenge in higher education these days? And how should ESU address them?
The main challenge? Europe – full stop. I think ESU can no longer escape the questions of how much power should be transferred to the European level concerning higher education. This includes tough questions on funding and governance. On the one hand, promoting mobility is what we believe in, but at the same time it has undermined national responsibility for higher education and we must face that dichotomy. I am not sure if we have reflected well enough on this.
There are great strains, especially in the EU, where freedom of movement is already leading to more privatization of the systems, but I think it would be wrong to be against Europeanisation. So, we need European solutions and that eventually will include more harmonization between higher education systems. Essentially this question is very close to the current debate coming along with the Eurozone situation. Could we see the European Commission as our government? What kind of democratic guarantees do we need in such a system? And lastly, how do we unite a student movement over a continent where our membership goes beyond the EU?
Higher education and research are in its nature international, so we just need to clarify the national and European and international responsibilities more clearly. I think at the moment there is too much no-mans land in between for which nobody wants to take responsibility. That situation also makes it more difficult for civil society to influence policymaking.
If you could only give 1 piece of advice to the next ESU Chairperson, what would it be?
I hope Karina will be able to raise the debate about Europe, but that doesn’t only depend on one person, of course.