Do not leave a generation of students behind
Martina Darmanin is the President of the European Students’ Union (ESU). Her role is to guide the organizations' policy development on the social dimension, its advocacy towards the BFUG, and its project coordination in relation to access to (higher) education and academic freedom. As a representative of ESU, Martina is also Vice President of the Lifelong Learning Platform (LLLP) and Board Member of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE).
Martina holds a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences from the University of Malta and organized her Master's research study in food sciences together with Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Engineering and Bio-economy in Potsdam, Germany. During her studies, Martina joined the student movement through the Malta Health Students' Association (MHSA) and the National Student Council in Malta (KSU).
Do not leave a generation of students behind
A Europe-wide survey carried out by the European Students’ Union together with the University of Zadar and the Institute for the Development of Education in Zagreb was launched at the height of the first wave of the pandemic back in April 2020 in an effort to collect the view of students in European higher education on their learning amidst the lockdowns and the urgent transition to an all digital mode of studying. Based on this study and the author’s perspective, a short-, mid- and long- term impact assessment on students’ learning conditions, the accessibility of European higher education systems and institutional culture, respectively, is provided in this opinion piece.
Confirming all the worst suspicions, the results of the survey demonstrated that the majority of students reported feeling frequently frustrated, anxious and bored in relation to their academic activities. It is to nobody’s surprise that an online only mode of learning is limited in ways of actively engaging students' participation. Even before the pandemic, when in-person learning was the norm, ESU has long been reiterating the desperate need for student-centered learning in terms of enhancing students’ capabilities to intervene in and influence their learning environments and learning pathways, i.e., student agency.
The study also shows that although students reported that their workload had increased in digital format students, particularly in their first and final years, reported feeling their academic performance worsen. An equation whereby students are required to put in a high work intensity into their education program but achieve less than their merited success is problematic, as it most likely increases students’ uncertainty in their current and future prospects. While the study does not provide data on the students’ psychological and social health, it grimly reveals that only 5.8% of students would turn to institutional staff if they needed support regarding their studies and 1.5% of students would turn to institutional staff if they needed support to talk about the COVID-19 crisis.
These results indicate the urgent need for higher education institutions (HEIs) to be given more resources for student counselling and support services, as well as the need to boost institutional mechanisms for enhancing student agency. The latter is crucial in order to prevent the situation from being perpetuated or conformed to due to the lack of students’ autonomous participation in the design and decision-making processes of their learning environments and curricula.
The pandemic has opened a clear window of opportunity for consultation and reform in the education sector that could enable more diverse and flexible learning pathways as well as better recognition and support for students’ participation in higher education governance processes. As post-pandemic recovery funds are currently being distributed and national budgets are drafted, it is essential to monitor how much funds are being distributed by public authorities to:
- Support HEIs in improving continuous professional training for academic and administrative staff for effective online delivery of learning and teaching methods.
- Enable HEIs to provide effective, accessible, and userfriendly counselling and guidance for students in order to find adequate solutions for academic, health, and career challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Help students to ameliorate the negative consequences caused by the COVID19 pandemic as well as to provide grants to underrepresented, disadvantaged, and vulnerable students.
It is important to combine these funding streams with a system that would enable the exchange and strategic development of good practices (creating positive feedback loops) while ensuring public transparency and accountability. Investing in educational support services may be deemed too expensive if the long-term economic and social benefits that will be gained by this investment are not taken into account. As written in the Principles and Guidelines for Strengthening the Social Dimension of Higher Education that was adopted by the 49 country ministers of the European Higher Education Area in the 2020 Rome Ministerial Conference: “increased participation of vulnerable, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups in higher education produces wider benefits with respect to decreased social welfare provision, improved health outcomes and increased community involvement…Graduate qualifications delivered to a wider pool of citizens means better employment prospects, higher earnings premiums and the passing on of an appreciation for the benefits of higher education to the next generation and to their local communities.”
The stakes are high for these sustainable public funding streams to become the majority rather than the exception for the education and youth sectors down to ground level. More and more students are at risk of serious financial trouble as the pandemic saw the instantaneous closure of industries that until today are still struggling to reopen in full swing. The figures gathered in the 2020 survey showed that 40% of students had lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently and, at this point in time, it cannot be said for certain whether that figure has increased or decreased.
The 2018-2019 EUROSTUDENT Synopsis of Indicators on the Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe goes deeper into revealing exactly how desperately needed it is to address the costs for students who do not have a social/financial security net to access, participate in as success in Europe’s higher education systems pre-pandemic. The study found that across Europe, every second student would not have been able to study at all if they did not have a paid job to finance their studies. National public student support accounts for just over a tenth (14%) of student income. The share of students with a paid job is higher among students without tertiary education background in their family - who are in fact underrepresented in almost all Eurostudent countries. Perhaps the most striking evidence of all gathered is that almost a quarter (24%) of students reported to be currently experiencing either serious or very serious financial difficulties.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis continue to wreak havoc, it is crystal clear that access to education is a fundamental key towards recovering the economic and environmental well-being of our whole society. Students make up the largest demographic of all stakeholders in the education community, similar to the base of a pyramid. By addressing the financial precarity of students through sustainable and transparent streams of public funds, it is possible that these funds are channeled through institutional support services and initiatives that can benefit not only current and future students but also staff and the wider communities within which they coexist.
While protests against student precarity have been picking up particularly in France and in Belgium, student governments around Europe are growing tired of having their calls for more equitably accessible higher education systems fall onto deaf ears or be met with insufficient commitment. Student organizations themselves are at risk if access to funds runs low especially if less and less students have the privilege (in terms of the flexibility of their education program as well as financial security to dedicate time to do often underpaid work) to be able actively participate and maintain the operations of student organisations.
Over the long-term, supporting the widening of operations of democratic student governments is an integral tool to strengthen and expand the culture of democratic participation in the wider society.