The Present: How Is the Social Dimension Being Implemented?

The 2015 Ministerial Conference and Policy Forum in Yerevan will be accompanied by the publication of new stakeholder and ministerial reports on the implementation of the Bologna process and the development of the EHEA. Although unavailable to us at the time of writing, it is obvious that some challenges to the implementation of the social dimension remain and will be highlighted once again. In comparison with other working areas of the EHEA, e.g. the development of quality assurance, the social dimension is developing quite slowly. Or in the words of the Eurydice report of 2011 'the social dimension has not generally become a significant driver for higher education policy' (Eurydice 2011).

This does not imply that there were no achievements with regards to the social dimension; the peer learning initiative PL4SD (peer learning for the social dimension), for example, is a significant step. The social dimension seems to remain an intimidating concept—it was six years between the Prague Communiqué and the first arguably workable definition of the concept in the London Communiqué—and it is here that some barriers towards the increasing influence of the social dimension on EHEA policy may be rooted. Furthermore, the motivation for a social dimension to pan-European higher education policy may have changed over the years. In the beginning, the social dimension could have been understood as a process to counterbalance the consequences of the original Bologna Declaration (EHEA 1999), which mainly focused on structural unification and competitiveness, and to ensure that the social needs of the student population are recognised. However, this changed with the Bucharest Communiqué when the social dimension appeared to have been altered to serve macro-economic considerations and the demands of the labour market.

The EHEA is quite a diverse collection of countries, especially with regards to employment and social situations (e.g. European Commission 2013). This raises the question if there can be something called 'the' social dimension, as this would imply that a single social reality exists in the breadth of EHEA member countries. Here lies perhaps the cause of one of the major challenges of the implementation of the social dimension in the past years. The Bologna process could be hallmarked by a dedicated striving towards unity and structural interchangeability under every other headline of the process—local conditions, differences and needs were hardly recognised. This of course made it difficult to achieve comparable outcomes. In the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué (EHEA 2009) the ministers agreed to develop national action plans, which for the first time encouraged them to think about their own national and local demands and opportunities. However, this agreement was not taken up by all of the countries as an opportunity to define a social dimension in their own countries. To date, only nine countries have produced such strategies, though some concrete policy targets exist in supporting or related measures in other countries (European Commission, EACEA, Eurydice 2014).

Returning to the definition of the social dimension presented in the London Communiqué, some questions need to be raised:

• Who is entering higher education, but much more importantly who is not

entering higher education?

• What does “the diversity of our populations” or, in other words Europe's

diversity which should be reflected in higher education, look like?

• What are the barriers for successful completion of studies? And what are the factors playing a role to achieve graduation?

• Is the diversity really represented in all three cycles?

These are the most basic questions which can be raised on the basis of the definition of the social dimension. However, this is just the basis, and the target defined within the London Communiqué (EHEA 2007) is both ambitious and nebulous. Some of the questions, e.g. who is entering higher education, can be answered with the data regularly provided by Eurostudent and the Eurydice reports. Others are still tricky to answer and lead to the constant repetition (arguably postponement) of the target to collect more and/or improved data in the ministerial communiqués (EHEA 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012b).

The EHEA defines the social dimension as a pure aspect of higher education '… entering, participating in and completing higher education…' (EHEA 2007) while OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) publications like 'Education at a Glance' (OECD 2014a, b) and 'PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do' (OECD 2012b) could be used to argue that the social dimension starts in early childhood education and not just with the admission to higher education. To really ensure that the 'student body …reflect the diversity of our populations' (EHEA 2007) it is therefore exactly this wider approach which is needed. Another question related to this is whether the social dimension stops after graduation. This question seems to have been answered definitively, though perhaps unintentionally in the negative, as after the last ministerial conference in Bucharest Lifelong Learning was added to the BFUG working group on social dimension. “Lifelong learning” itself, however, is yet another problematic term badly in need of at least a London-style definition.

The social dimension as it is currently defined goes beyond the competences of ministries responsible for higher education; it also overlaps with the competences of ministries responsible, for example, for finance, social affairs, work and primary-secondary education. However, these ministries were never included in the debates on the nature of the social dimension and how it can be successfully implemented. This is troublesome as many aspects of the social dimension so far elaborated overlap with other areas of competence within state bureaucracies (particularly social welfare). Core responsibilities of higher education ministries, like the design of curricula, learning and teaching environment, pedagogical approaches, as well as teacher education, have so far had a very minor role with regards to the social dimension.

Another barrier for the social dimension is the individual commitment of the countries. While it was relatively easy for northern and western European countries to present their “achievements”, mostly pre-existing or entirely unrelated to requirements of the Bologna Process, it was relatively difficult for Southern and Eastern countries to catch-up with their peers. With certain exceptions—Slovenia and Croatia in particular—countries in the south and east often did and do not have the financial capacities to invest significantly into under-represented groups in higher education. Students and their representatives can be seen as the group with the highest commitment towards the social dimension, a term which they not only invented (EHEA 2001), but also constantly asked for its further development (e.g. ESIB 2003, 2005, 2007; ESU 2009, 2012).

The often repeated demand for more data (EHEA 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012a) is ambivalent, as on the one hand an evidence-based policy making can be appreciated, but on the other hand demands for more thorough data-collection can be also used as an excuse to either implement new, unrelated, policies or to abdicate responsibility in this area altogether. Implementing new data-collection regulations does not in itself constitute progress on social dimension issues. What is needed to validate the claim for more and new data is a clear idea what this data should be used for and which questions need to be answered. This is not a new view on the data problem, as already prior to the 2012 ministerial conference in Bucharest the concept of an observatory for the social dimension was discussed, which then became the PL4SD initiative. More troubling than the lack of data from many countries is the mutual intelligibility of that data which is available. One easy example is the term “disability” which is defined in many widely varying ways across the EHEA, if at all (Eurydice 2011).

Although peer learning might be a good opportunity to help individual countries to develop national action plans and to re-assess their data, it alone does not solve the above mentioned problems.

 
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