A Comprehensive Approach to Investigating the Social Dimension in European Higher Education Systems—EUROSTUDENTand the PL4SD Country Reviews

Dominic Orr and Shweta Mishra

Bologna Process and Social Dimension

Reforms continue to embrace most higher education systems of the world and especially the 47 signatory states of the Bologna Declaration at the present. On average across the 28 OECD member countries for which data is available, spending in tertiary education in the period 1995–2011 has kept pace with the growth in student numbers—both showing a growth rate of around one quarter (Orr 2015). This impressive dynamic has been mirrored in many regions of the world and has turned the attention of policy-makers and higher education leaders to the questions of efficiency, effectiveness and equity of higher education provision. This means that they are interested in value for money, the impact of higher education and the question of impact on whom. Different countries have focused to a varying extent on these three issues, but they are evident in most policy documents and strategy papers. Starting with the Bologna Declaration in 1999, the Bologna Process has been a forum for common strategies. Greater harmonisation of degree structures, academic performance, quality assurance, and increased mobility for teachers and students have been central action lines (Dodds and Katz 2009, p. 4). Social dimension first entered the Bologna process in 2001 during the Prague communiqué and was further expanded and elaborated during the London communiqué (2007) and Leuven communiqué (2009). It has been defined as targeting 'participative equity' through a process of reform leading to the outcome that “the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels [reflects] the diversity of (…) populations” in the European Higher Education Area (London communiqué 2007). This is a long-standing goal of modern higher education systems, which aims to assure that educational success is detached from a person's origins. It is repeated in the most recent Bucharest communiqué of 2012 (p. 1). The aim can be morally argued from the standpoint of Rawls' (1971) argument for social justice. There is also an effectiveness argument for improving the participation and study conditions of certain groups of students, which was also made in the Leuven communiqué of 2009. It argues that available talent in Europe should be “maximised” to assure the realisation of a Europe of knowledge:

In the decade up to 2020 European higher education has a vital contribution to make in realising a Europe of knowledge that is highly creative and innovative. Faced with the challenge of an ageing population Europe can only succeed in this endeavour if it maximises the talents and capacities of all its citizens and fully engages in lifelong learning as well as in widening participation in higher education.

This argument has been further emphasised in the Bucharest communiqué of 2012 with reference to the challenges leading on from the economic and financial crisis (p. 1). These two arguments—social justice and effectiveness for a Europe of knowledge—provide the basis for efforts on the part of policy-makers at national and regional level, and leaders and practitioners in educational institutions to improve the social dimension of higher education. Their work is founded on the recognition that a confluence of three factors tend to determine educational success: student ability, material and immaterial (e.g. social and cultural) resources and opportunity. In particular, non-academic factors such as social background and aspiration, and study framework conditions (e.g. balance between work and studies) affect participation and success in higher education. Indeed, visible student ability may have been affected by a person's material and immaterial resources at a previous (e.g. secondary) educational level.

However, whilst the social dimension has been a focal point for the Bologna Process, at least since it was expressly defined as objective for the European Higher Education Area in 2007, it has been difficult to translate it into a manageable policy agenda. As recently stated in an analysis of this policy: “the social dimension is a policy item that found a way into the Bologna Process agenda, but could not grow into an implementable policy” (Orr et al. 2014; Yagci 2014). This is largely because concrete definitions are needed for the social dimension, but these are national-context specific and evolving. Indeed, Holford (2014, p. 22) has concluded: “the [social] dimension's limited success (and more recent displacement from policy, if not rhetoric) can be put down in large part to the difficulties of encapsulating complex and contested social priorities in internationally acceptable indicators (…).”

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