The European Students’ Union (ESU) defends the essential importance of students’ participation in the development of and discussions about national higher education policies. The students’ perspective is absolutely necessary to achieve high quality in a national strategy for higher education and must be considered if these policies are to have the necessary legitimacy for their implementation.
ESU defends a democratic state with an equal and comprehensive participation of society as the basis of legitimacy in its actions. Therefore, the legitimacy of government action cannot only be guaranteed through the individuals’ right to vote, but it must be continually reaffirmed through an equal and inclusive participation of citizens and in the definition of public policies, either directly or through institutions that represent the interests of different social sectors. It is necessary so that public policies will be legally entitled through voting in parliaments.
As student representatives at universities, we respect the current legislation of Spain and the government emanating of its urns. However, we would like to remind the Spanish government that legitimacy emanates from the will of the citizens and government action must respond to this. The current legislation aims at establishing a democratic model that will imply that political participation is primarily expressed through political parties, and public authorities should provide full political participation, as well as economic, cultural and social effectiveness of the citizens. So, during all this time have mechanisms have been developed for participation, which seek to increase the legitimacy of the policy decisions and aim to achieve the highest possible social consensus.
When referring to an education policy, the legal framework established by public authorities must ensure the right to public education for every citizen, through a general plan on education, with all the stakeholders taking part in the process. Higher education policy in Spain has some mechanisms especially settled for students to directly affect national public policies, such as the “Observatory for Student Scholarships” and the National University Students’ Council (CEUNE), which ESU specially celebrated.
According to these principles, we respect the fact that the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport is responsible for leading the process and proposals for general policy guidelines in higher education. Nevertheless, since the current government started its term, the Ministry has completely lost its political legitimacy based on its commitment to citizens, despite still having the legal legitimacy based on laws. This has been demonstrated in their attitude, by not seeking an agreement or discussion with stakeholders whatsoever, and maintaining a despotic attitude based on imposing policies that change the Spanish Public Higher Education System.
In April 2012, the government agreed on a legislative decree, which implied considerable changes to the public higher education funding system, where families were the ones taking on a huge cost increase, up to 60% in some regions. This decree was neither proposed nor discussed with the stakeholders involved in education. The Spanish government has forced the citizens into it. It was not shared with existing consultative institutions, such as the CEUNE.
During the following months, an agreement was reached to change the national scholarships system, with another decree that banished the notion of scholarships as a right and instrument for social justice, and simultaneously entailed several changes to both the academic and economic requirements, as well as the number of the scholarships offered. The government reneged on its own rules, as the Observatory for Student Scholarships wasn’t asked for a report on this decree, although the government created the observatory. In fact, this observatory has not been involved in the current term in office, without any legal or political consequences for the President of the body, the Minister for Education.
This approach lacks all legitimacy and occasionally implies illegal actions, as the Minister turns a deaf ear to Spanish state laws, which establish some imperatives for the government to ensure the participation of the entire higher education community. This situation occurs for instance, when the CEUNE hasn’t been called according to its own regulation at the Spanish Student Statute. The Minister has only requested a hearing with CEUNE two times, in 2012 and 2013 respectively, when it should have been called in at least three times a year. In exercise of the right given by the Statute, more than a third of the members of CEUNE called for a session, which was never answered by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.
CREUP, and other student organisations from Spain, have voiced out the basic need for having a permanent space for discussions and debates about policies on higher education made by the government, receiving only silence in response. This attitude collides with the way that something as valuable as education should be treated.
Taking these situations into account, and empowered by the continuous requests for discussions that CREUP has demonstrated during these three years, the European Students’ Union strongly condemns the behavior of the current Minister for Education, Culture and Sports of the Spanish government. We would also like to emphasise that it is of key importance that governments are for the people, but through this action it effectively turns its backs against its own citizens.
Moreover, ESU condemns any form of a public attack, as well as the false accusations against public universities in Spain made by the Spanish Ministry of Education and a range of politically biased national media. ESU joins CREUP supporting universities’ autonomy and stresses that Spanish public universities cannot be blamed for consequences resulting from cuts in public funding.