european students’ union

2012 Policy Paper “ESU Policy on the Social Dimension”


1 Introduction

2 Basic indicators

3 Immediate areas of concern within the social dimension

4 Annex


This document expresses ESUs view on the social dimension, and it is intended primarily to be used by ESUs representatives as a basis for work involving social dimension issues in different fora. Decided upon by the Board Meeting, this document gathers and replaces a number of earlier statements concerning the social dimension (listed at the end of the document) and takes their place as the basis for how ESU is to work with social dimension issues.


1. Introduction

The crisis has deep consequences on the social situation of students throughout Europe. Furthermore these consequences will also effect the next generations of students considering the growing precariousness in our continent, at least for the following years or decades. In many countries, the number of young people joining higher education institutions is decreasing year after year and the social inequalities are reaching an unknown level. Therefore social dimension of higher education and the will of ESU and NUS’s to enhance it at the European level and among European states gains a crucial significance in any time of crisis. As student representatives and citizens engaged in social progress, ESU members are deeply aware of the necessity of allowing a growing number of young people to benefit from an public, freely accessible  education, and quality and a qualification, which is necessary to be protected from unemployment and to benefit from decent conditions of work. To ensure the future and the cohesion of our societies, we want to use this paper as a way to stress the responsibility of states to implement public policies related to our conception of the social dimension This is the purpose of this policy paper.

Higher Education is a societal and social phenomenon, which must operate within the bounds of a responsibility to the society in which it exists, both internally (within its own mechanism) and externally (in its coexistence with the state).

Education is a human right, a public good and must be free of barriers.

The social dimension, therefore, can be termed a toolkit for social inclusion and social mobility, and when speaking of the social dimension it is the attainment of this social inclusion and mobility that is the fundamental goal.

From the start it is important to note that the social dimension is vastly more than simply financial support. Higher education’s responsibility to cultural, political, scientific and human development must all be considered simultaneously to grasp the whole breadth of the social dimension. The social dimension refers to all levels of higher education, not simply learners but teachers and leaders also, and it also extends beyond higher education institutions.

Higher education contributes to the overall life passage of all people involved in it, not just formatively, but also towards preparing people for their life. However, higher education should not be limited to those at an early stage, but also be available for all of society at any point in their lives, so that lifelong learning may become a reality.

As higher education is a proven means of improving society’s prospects in terms of mobility, outputs, quality of life, community, and even general health, it must be understood as a societal good, and a societal responsibility. So, even as higher education benefits all of society, it is society’s responsibility to enable it. Higher education is, in the most simple terms, a strategic investment for any state, while primarily it is a human right. As such, it must be seen as a long-term investment of society and for the good of all society, whose benefits repay society many times over if it is sustained and stable. Those who benefit from higher education also includes economic actors, and the long-term investment view expressed above does not stand in contrast to the interests of economic actors – indeed they benefit as much as the rest of society.

No person should be confronted by any barrier to higher education, and it is a societal responsibility to make sure that everyone has actual equal access to higher education.


2. Basic indicators

In order to sufficiently grasp the whole span of the social dimension it is useful to set some basic indicators, which will be in turn qualified and defined.

2.1 Access

Access should not be considered solely admission to higher education, but more fully as the means and mechanisms by which a student enters, is supported during, and is given the tools to succeed after a course of higher education. Access must be free, meaning not only economically free but also free in terms of without barriers.

Higher education must be open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. The key concept behind this free access lies in adequately identifying and confronting barriers which are presented both by higher education systems themselves and also by individual and external factors. The obligation rests both with the state and the institution in ensuring that higher education is truly accessible for all, so that it has its fair value guaranteed.

It is essential that access is thought of as including all levels of the education system. Work with the social dimension loses its force and meaning if at the onset only a small an unequal part of the population have the possibility to take part in Higher Education.

The social dimension, and specifically in this case ‘Access’ can be seen as the means by which those who may be motivated to participate in higher education are enabled to do so, but it is also the conscious work to ensure that those motivations aren’t squashed by class structures to begin with. So, more importantly it is the mechanism by which barriers to those who could, but cannot, participate are enabled to do so.

Given the increasing precarity for the European populations and especially its youth, the potential decrease in the number of students accessing HE is a real threat in many countries. Therefore, an active financial aid policy is needed not only to garantee equal access to education, but to allow a higher number of students to be able to participate in higher education. More than ever, a further investment in student grants is a necessity in order to achieve an inclusive and more participated HE system.

2.2 Diversity

Society is diverse, therefore higher education must be prepared to operate in a diverse context. Within higher education diversity should be fostered and encouraged actively, recognising and acknowledging that different people require different means of working, which is ultimately of benefit to all involved.

Diversity should not only be thought of by means of demographic mirroring, for example, but rather in a holistic manner – including the entire population in a higher education system which benefits the entire population.

Obviously, specific tools will need to be employed to enable this as a process, but these tools must be adaptive, flexible and tolerant to change, lest they become inherently oppressive to the diversity agenda.

2.3 Equality

Equality is the state of being equal, especially in rights, status, and opportunities. True equality within diversity is only possible if we do not treat everyone in the same way. This does not mean that equity and equality are the same thing – equity is one limited aspect of equality. Equality is a process by which individuals are treated according to their individual needs and requirements and thus equality should be a long-term goal and must be habitual and practised daily.

It is not sufficient to only come to considering equality at the point of entrance, but more importantly throughout the entire system and structure of higher education, and the education system as a whole from the very beginnings up to and including the highest echelons of decision making. This applies just as equally to the entire social structure, not only education, as equality cannot flourish only within one comfortable sector, but must be endemic within societies in order for its positive impacts to be felt.

2.4 Social mobility

Social mobility is a process by which people are enabled to reach their self-estimated full potential, regardless of one’s social status, reducing social inequality across all of society. In order to decrease social selectivity in the access to higher education and thus increasing the societal academic rate, access to higher education has to be opened increasingly.

In an age of higher educational attainment, the social dimension of higher education must recognise that social mobility is enabled and curated by participation in higher education. Higher education can no longer be simply a status-enhancing activity, but something that is available for all in order to enhance their social mobility.

High levels of participation in higher education supports active democratic participation, and society to truly take possession of their own decision making processes on every level.

True social mobility must, in fact, occur outside of higher education, also before and after higher education. People must be enabled to participate of course, but also must be shown the means by which they may benefit from the experience and learning granted to them by higher education.

2.5 Affordability

The solidarity investment concept, as discussed above, is the key motivation behind enabling persons to participate entirely in higher education. The most obvious potential barrier to participation in higher education is financial. It is not sufficient to say that ‘the average person’ can afford to access higher education, but rather every one can. Therefore, there must be no cost to the individual to participate during their studies.

Participants in higher education must be allowed to focus their energies entirely on the experience of learning. Therefore social support must be offered without prejudice, without any financial or motivational barrier to accessing it or stigma associated with receipt and benefit from it. Students must be provided with a framework that enables them to focus on their studies at whatever pace they choose. Students should be enabled to study without having to work to supplement their cost of living.

Graduates of higher education will remit the state’s expense of their tuition and support throughout their working life by means of income taxation, in that process, they will repay this many times over, and in turn enable the next generation to participate to at least the same level as they themselves enjoyed, if not more so.

2.9 Lifelong learning

Higher education should be accessible to people at every point in their life. The benefits of consistent lifelong learning activities are great and varied – an open and diverse higher education, even if only on an institutional level, must be intergenerationally diverse as well as ethnically, for example.

As employment habits are prone to rather rapid change, the availability of lifelong learning is increasingly important. Higher education must be available to all, at any point in time.

Institutions and systems must be prepared to react to the changing needs of learners in a comprehensive and systematic way. In addition, everyone regardless of age should be entitled to the same rights, for example state-provided financial support of studies.

2.10 Active anti-discrimination measures

It is the responsibility of higher education systems, institutions and individuals within these, to acknowledge and actively recognise and confront discrimination whenever it occurs. There are many tools, which can be used to encourage a truly open, diverse, and accepting context for higher education, and these are as diverse themselves as the many grounds of discrimination that exist now, or will in the future. This list must include among others homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and xenophobia.

Self-identification is the power of an individual to define themself amongst others, to have the possibility to say who they are and what they stand for without being bound by other people’s labels and constraints.

There is often a lack of diversity in decision-making processes within systems and institutions. It is the obligation of the system and the institution to make these processes as open and democratic as possible, through whatever appropriate measure, to encourage the greatest possible diversity in decision-making processes. In short, ESU encourages the greatest respect for diversity within the democratisation of higher education.

Affirmative action is a means to achieve equality by a programme of proactive measures. Positive discrimination is a process that seeks to temporarily redress a specific inequality by focussing on the rights of a discriminated group within society. These two can be understood only as a short-term measure, and must be pan-systematic, not simply enacted and abandoned in place once.

ESU will continue to oppose all attempts to limit freedom of speech and expression within societies or higher education systems which will negatively impact on participation in higher education or society as a whole.


3. Immediate areas of concern within the social dimension

Although the generalities of the above should be clearly understood, some specific areas need to be highlighted in terms of the social dimension’s impacts on them.

3.1 Social support

Social support systems must be understood as a way to ensure that participants in higher education are able to support themselves throughout their studies, and that no one is left behind because of the lack of services. Therefore the system has to examine the individual needs which differ from one person to another, but must guarantee at least housing, physical and infrastructural support, emotional and mental well-being, healthcare, transport, financial, social and cultural needs, as well as many other factors.

3.2 Gender Equality

As higher education operates within society as a whole, it must function within a gender equal context. This is a large scale and systematic undertaking, detailed thoroughly in ESU’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategy (ESU, 2012).

3.3 Disabilities

Social-support must be based on individual needs. This can become considerably more complicated when considering students with disabilities. For example, simply making infrastructural changes to facilities in order to enable wheelchair users’ access to buildings is insufficient to sufficiently support learners with special needs.

It is the responsibility of higher education institution to ensure that everyone no matter what disability can participate in the same and full manner than other students. Higher Education systems and organisation are responsible for providing an adequate learning environment for everyone’s needs.

3.4. Health and well-being

Students’ physical, mental and social well-being must also be a concern of the society and the institutions of higher education. Affordable student health care and university sports services prevent severe problems that prohibit students from being successful in their education.

General health care, both physical and mental, should be provided complimentarily to enable all people to participate in a non-detrimental manner in higher education.

“Health care services and sport services must be equally and easily accessible. It is the role of the higher education institutions to ensure that sufficient sport services are organized and sports encouraged.”

3.5 Student as a Learner

The most complex and well-developed and implemented access and support mechanisms may still collapse when not implemented properly with regard to teaching and learning. ESU encourages the continuing development of responsive student-centered learning concepts.

3.6 Counseling and advising

Every student must have access to student-centered advice whenever it may be necessary during the course of their studies. This advice should not necessarily be limited to internal matters, but (specifically at the point of exit from higher education) should also give guidance on general welfare and personal development, for example. Students should be aware of the existence of support mechanisms.

3.7 Students with children

A child’s welfare must always be secured. Students with children must be accommodated in their studies so that they are able to perform to the best of their abilities, both as parents and as students. Higher education institutions must take families into account when planning timetables, university housing and any other areas where parents can be accommodated. Society must provide the student parent with sufficient financial support for the student to be able to focus both on childcare and schoolwork without either suffering.

3.8. Intergenerational Equality

Intergenerational equality is one of the key challenges for Europe which is facing radical demographic changes. With the shifting age distribution, the burden of sustaining a Europe of equal opportunities and rights for all its citizens, the youth — are already facing a greater financial burden than the generations before us. Intergenerational equality means that while the younger generation has a responsibility to the older, the older generation must realize and protect that the generation coming after them will have at least the same educational opportunities. For instance, increasing and introducing tuition fees is a form of intergenerational inequality and as such is intolerable. Other areas that must be addressed include among others, social support (including student support), questions on working life and retirement which must be considered and built as intergenerational equality as a grounding principle.


4. Annex

This policy draws from sections of the following policies, statements and strategies of ESU. In case any conflict arises with any other policy of ESU, this policy shall take precedence:

Student Support Services Policy Paper

Student Welfare into the New Millennium

The Fight against Racism

NO means NO

Extended Access to Qualified Higher Education

Vertical Mobility

Göteborg Declaration

Brussels Declaration

Student visions on a common Europe

Athens Communiqé

New Approaches to Student Wellbeing

New Challenges for a Wider Perspective on the Future of the EHEA

Equal Opportunities in Higher Education

ESIB and the Bologna Process

Opening the Big Door II


Transnational Education

Social Objectives and the Economic Perspective of the Lisbon Strategy in Relation to Higher Luxemboug Declaration

Financing of Higher Education

The Students’ Opinion on the Lisbon Strategy of the European Union

A Social Dimension to Higher Education

Doctoral Studies

Governance in Higher Education

Berlin Declaration

Equal Opportunities

Students’ Rights Charter


Towards 2020 – A Student-Centred Bologna Process

Gender Equality in Higher Education

Lifelong Learning

Doctoral Education

Quality assurance needs to take account of the Social Dimension of Higher Education

Statement on the Social Dimension

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