No Future for the Social Dimension?

Florian Kaiser, Aengus Ó. Maoláin and Līva Vikmane


The social dimension of the Bologna Process has come to a turning point. In the last fifteen years the social dimension has progressed little in comparison to every other headline area of the Bologna Process, and the member states of the European Higher Education Area (henceforth EHEA) have demonstrated less proactive commitment to developing it. Seven successive ministerial communiqués (2001– 2012) have celebrated progress on many fronts, bemoaned uneven developments in others, and largely repeated with more or less nuanced rhetoric the Prague communiqué's distant goal to “take account of the social dimension of higher education.” Anecdotally, ministers seem to loath to articulate measurable goals in the social dimension or to imply any super-national responsibility for the makeup of their student populations. This article addresses the question of what future there is for the social dimension in the EHEA at the historical development of the social dimension (the past), current implementation of the social dimension (the present), and how it might develop over the coming years (the future).

This article aims to provide a provocative input regarding the future development of the social dimension in the hope of stimulating debate. As a foundation to that, we hope to contribute to an understanding of the historical development and current state of the social dimension. The social dimension should be understood, in brief, as the strategies and measures taken to mirror the diversity of society at large within higher education (European Higher Education Area, EHEA 2007) Europe is facing considerable change: increasing mobility within Europe and a growing diversity, or even 'super-diversity' (Crul et al. 2013). At the same time, rising inequality (OECD 2014b), and increased risk of poverty and exclusion (European Commission 2013). The demand for a sustainable and efficient social dimension of higher education is still a given, though the motivation to focus on a social dimension might have changed over the years since the concept's introduction.

The Past: Historical Development of the Social Dimension

Some time before the Bologna Process began in earnest, the philosophy of the as yet to be named social dimension had already gained some currency in policy discussions. The Council of Europe's Recommendation on Access to Higher Education defined 'access' in the broader sense that the social dimension inherited,

i.e. “widening […] participation in higher education to all sections of society, and […] ensuring that this participation is effective” (CoE 1998).

The first inclusion of the social dimension in the Bologna process (EHEA 1999) came in the Prague Communiqué (EHEA 2001). There the “Ministers […] reaffirmed the need, recalled by students, to take account of the social dimension in the Bologna process” (EHEA 2001). As stated in the Communiqué, the initial push to include the social dimension on the agenda of the Bologna process came from students (EHEA 2001). Consequently, it is important to analyse the intentions of student representatives involved in the process at that time.

Dr. Manja Klemenčič, Director/Secretary General (1999–2001) of the European Students' Information Bureau (ESIB), recalls ESIB's preparation for the Ministerial Summit in Prague where they were to be formally acknowledged as the only organisation representing students involved in Bologna process (Klemenčič 2012), having been excluded among other stakeholder organisations in the Bologna conference. ESIB's second European Students' Convention in Gothenburg addressed a wide range of policy concerning the implementation and future of the Bologna process, including the social implications of higher education, mobility, quality assurance and accreditation. The "Student Göteborg Declaration" (ESIB 2001) summarized the key findings of that meeting and was included in the annex of key reports submitted to Ministers alongside other inputs. The declaration highlighted in particular that “although the Bologna Declaration pointed out the basic aspects of the European dimension of higher education, it failed to address the social implications the process has on students […] and that education should be considered a public good, [… and there is a …] need to remove both academic and social, economic and political obstacles […]”. The Prague Communiqué (EHEA 2001) directly echoed the Göteborg declaration when it stated: “Ministers also reaffirmed the need, recalled by students, to take account of the social dimension in the Bologna process.”

The context of the time must be taken into consideration here, as ESIB (like many other actors in the education policy sphere) had become much occupied during the 1990s with attempting to contain the influence of the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) trade agreement of 1994 (World Trade Organisation, 1994), which marked the real beginning of the so-called commodification of higher education. GATS directly links education within a legally binding document to the labour market and economic interests. Goals such as the improved recognition of degrees harmonisation of the EHEA are in line with GATS targets: “Member may recognize the education or experience obtained… Such recognition which may be achieved through the harmonization” (GATS 1994). Even access to education has a relation to GATS as “A Member…shall afford adequate opportunity for other interested Members to negotiate their accession…Where a Member accords recognition autonomously, it shall afford adequate opportunity for any other Member…” (GATS 1994).

As GATS is an agreement with a focus solely on economics and trade, it can be seen to contradict the social dimension as social needs are not recognised on the same level as economical interest. The very fact that the ministers involved in the Prague communiqué made a clear statement that Higher Education "should be a public good and will remain a public responsibility" (EHEA 2001) is a clear signal, and the social dimension as an element of this non trade-oriented and holistic aspect of the EHEA is more understandable.

The Göteborg Declaration was explicit in asking: “…you, the ministers responsible for higher education, explicitly to write a social dimension into the implementation of the Bologna Declaration.” In the Prague Communiqué it can be seen that this call was heard, though perhaps with an eye to the specifically European dimension of the process. At that point, mobility was the particular focus of the social dimension: “[…] Ministers encouraged the follow-up group to arrange seminars to explore the following areas: […] the social dimension, with specific attention to obstacles to mobility […]”. The social dimension within the Prague Communiqué was not seen as an independent action line. Rather, it was much more an aspect which refers to the targets of creating a European dimension within higher education, and as well the competitiveness and attractiveness of the EHEA. The introduction of the social dimension within the Prague Communiqué can be understood as mean to achieve a “lasting employability” and therefore still follows the economic logic of GATS, although the students intended to counterbalance this logic.

The Berlin communiqué (EHEA 2003) made little new ground in relation to the social dimension, merely reasserting the ministers' commitment to it, while drawing particular attention to gender equality, and (in what will become a recurring theme) drawing attention to the need for more comparable data on the social and economic situation of students.

In a somewhat more declaratory tone, the social dimension was further developed in the Bergen Communiqué (EHEA 2005) where the ministers committed: “[…] to making quality higher education equally accessible to all, and stress the need for appropriate conditions for students so that they can complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background.” This commitment is made more generally to the social dimension of higher education as a whole.

More notably, by delegating a responsibility to the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) to collate data on the social and economic situation of students in participating countries, the ministers had set an expectation that, at the following conference in London in 2007, they would be presented a report on the progress towards this goal: “We also charge the Follow-up Group with presenting comparable data […] on the social and economic situation of students in participating countries as a basis for future stocktaking and reporting in time for the next Ministerial Conference. The future stocktaking will have to take into account the social dimension as defined above.” (EHEA 2007).

The follow-up group delegated the tasks specific to the monitoring and developing of the social dimension to a newly established working group on social dimension and data on mobility of staff and students. The terms of reference for the working group (at least those immediately relevant to the social dimension) were the following:

• to define the concept of social dimension based on the ministerial communiqués of the Bologna Process;

• to present comparable data on the social and economic situation of students in

participating countries;

• to prepare proposals as a basis for future stocktaking (European Higher

Education Area/Government Offices of Sweden 2007).

The working group's report to the London conference of 2007 presented several possible actions to foster the embedding of the social dimension in the systems of participating countries, including measures to promote equal opportunities and equal participation, widen access and participation in higher education. The requirement for national action plans for widening participation in higher education was also taken into consideration in the London meeting.

The follow-up group's own mandate to the working group in 2005 to distil a definition of the social dimension from the pre-existing ministerial communiqués to date finally reached the most widely cited definition we have for the EHEA's social dimension in the London communiqué: “We share the societal aspiration that the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should reflect the diversity of our populations. We reaffirm the importance of students being able to complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background, while stressing the efforts […] to widen participation at all levels on the basis of equal opportunity.” (EHEA 2007).

Among the priorities for the following period until the ministerial conference in 2009, action plans and measures on the social dimension were introduced, as well as the intention (once again) to “[…] develop comparable and reliable indicators and data to measure progress towards the overall objective for the social dimension and student and staff mobility in all Bologna countries.”

The Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communique (EHEA 2009), adopted in April 2009, emphasises equitable access and completion. A considerable step forward, rhetorically at least, was made in this communique, as each Bologna country is urged to: “[…] set measurable targets for widening overall participation and increasing participation of underrepresented groups in higher education […].” (authors' emphasis). Very few members of the EHEA had begun work on the plans by the time of the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve conference (European Students' Union ESU 2009).

Following the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve conference, the BFUG delegated its work on the social dimension to a more narrowly defined "social dimension working group" for the next three years. In contrast to the terms of reference of 'the working group of social dimension and data on the mobility of staff and students in participating countries' (EHEA 2005), the terms of reference for the newly established 'social dimension working group' were more specific. The mandate was aiming to provide (note, the mandate this time is directly to the working group) comparable information on practices and data on the implementation of the social dimension—identifying and analysing obstacles to HE, analysing actions taken to increase levels of equity, and analysing strategies of widening access to HE.

The Budapest-Vienna declaration (EHEA 2010) from the 2010 special conference of ministers to officially mark the launch of the EHEA was a very short, stock-taking document. The ministers acknowledged that the social dimension was a key element of the process, but committed to no more than increasing their “efforts on the social dimension in order to provide equal opportunities to quality education, paying particular attention to underrepresented groups.” (EHEA 2010). Perhaps unfortunately, and despite a considerable broadening of scope since the first mention of the social dimension, the Bucharest Communiqué's (EHEA 2012a) focus was much narrower, as it mainly focused on the relation between the social dimension and the needs of the labour market. Ministers agreed yet again to adopt national measures to widen participation in higher education, as well as reduce inequalities, ensure flexible learning paths (with a particular new focus on lifelong learning), counselling and guidance, as well as introducing voluntary peer learning in the social dimension, a measure aimed at improving the processes around the development and implementation of National Action Plans for the social dimension, lead in reality by the European Commission-funded PL4SD project (EHEA 2012a).

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