Original version of this article published by University World News 23 May 2014, issue 321, available at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20140520111654588
By Nevena Vuksanovic
Education has come to be understood solely as an economic good rather than a tool for social development. Education markets have been established following an instrumentalist approach that views education purely as an economic good and resource for prosperity.
This industry-oriented education approach was initially applied to vocational education and training. During the 1990s this approach expanded to higher education as neo-liberalism, in which economic growth was considered the only possible way of maintaining prosperity, took hold.
Industry-oriented education is an approach to learning, teaching and assessment that caters for the needs of industry, neglecting the multiple purposes of higher education as a public good and public responsibility which reflects the needs of society as a whole. It favours standardisation rather than harmonisation of diverse educational systems.
In this context, higher education is perceived as a knowledge industry, higher education institutions as service providers and students as consumers of education and human capital for the labour market. This approach reduces people to numbers and customers.
The European Students’ Union, or ESU, thinks it goes against the fundamental social values and norms attributed to higher education to address it as a commodity and students as consumers that purchase this service. This also contradicts approaches that the EU member states have agreed to in their European Higher Education Area communiqués.
The European Area of Skills and Qualifications, or EASQ, is one of the last steps towards completion of the project of a European single market, as stated in the background document published for public consultation.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the single market is a free trade area that involves more than one nation based on a mutual agreement to permit the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services.
Although internationalisation may be seen as part of a political strategy leading to economic progress, increased competitiveness and innovation, it is important to stress that internationalisation is not the driver of the commodification of higher education.
In the end, the prevailing political discourse is misleading if we want to understand the concept of employability and its crucial differences from employment: “Employability is defined as a learning process, a graduate’s achievement and potential to acquire a job, making sure that the concept is not confused with the actual acquisition of a job – although the concept and the environment are highly interdependent,” as my colleague and I wrote in a recent University World News article.
Position of the European Students’ Union
The public consultation on the European Area for Skills and Qualifications refers to learning outcomes and quality assurance. The ESU believes that the recognition of prior learning and transparency play a crucial role in the internationalisation of education. Thus it welcomes the further development of learning outcomes and transparency tools.
Quality assurance should have a greater role in the paradigm shift from a teacher-centred to the student-centred learning approach, as well as in the assessment of learning outcomes, regardless of the mode of learning and teaching.
However, the ESU is concerned about the recognition of qualifications by various education providers outside the formal context of education where adequate quality assurance and accreditation measures may not be in place.
While the union is generally positive about creating a cohesive platform for different tools for skills and qualifications, it has some concerns: it is critical of the discourse used by the EU in relation to the definition of Europe/European and asks for differentiation between EU tools and European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, tools, particularly when these appear to be in conflict with each other.
The ESU would prefer to strengthen cooperation among EHEA countries in implementing existing tools properly, thus enhancing internationalisation. The key to recognition of qualifications and skills and of prior learning and transparency lies in making existing tools more effective and providing a stronger quality assurance system in the EHEA.
The European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education, or EQAR, and the European Standards and Guidelines, or ESG, are essential in this development.
Moreover, the ESU believes transnational education should not be used for branding higher education institutions or seeking profit from such arrangements, regardless of the frequency of the establishment of franchises, offshore campuses, twinning and joint degree programmes due to the increased demand for education.
Instead, transnational education should benefit the local community and the learning environment by providing students with opportunities for quality assured education, free of charge.
Students reiterate the importance of implementing and further adjusting national qualifications frameworks, especially in terms of expected learning outcomes and student participation.
Vocational education and training should not be seen as a ‘dead end’ and it should develop amongst other things, general competences, in particular citizenship. In order to be student-centred, the evaluation of the quality of learning programmes should be qualitative and not just quantitative, contextual and not just general, work-based and not just school-based.
The ESU believes that the support of the main stakeholders is essential for the European Area of Skills and Qualifications to succeed. It would be useful to have a clear message on this issue that discourages the creation of parallel structures and encourages the use of existing tools.
* Nevena Vuksanovic is an executive committee member of the European Students’ Union. The ESU’s position paper on this issue is available at this site.