Student policy recommendations

As we have seen throughout the FINST project, in spite of various political processes on European level, namely the Bologna Process and EU, higher education funding systems in Europe are very different and diverse. Therefore homogenous policy suggestions are very difficult in this field. Due to social, historical, legal, political and economic circumstances, policies on financing of higher education have to respect local characteristics.

Despite that, we have observed certain overall trends and challenges, and based on consultation with student representatives as well as other stakeholders, we are proposing the following recommendations:

1. Close the funding gap and put more public funds into Higher Education
In the past decades, numbers of students have increased significantly, while the public budgets for higher education have not. In fact, in the last 5 years they have decreased in almost all European countries. Apart from that, we have seen developments that have dramatically influenced the level of required financial support, such as internationalisation of higher education and research, the urge for quality and new teaching methods, the increasing and different economic interests in HE, and the diversification of places where knowledge is created, disseminated and transferred.

Not addressing these developments can have very negative long-term effects, so the governments need to prioritise higher education and increase public investment to ensure freely accessible and quality higher education.

2. Higher Education must remain a public good and a public responsibility European
As higher education plays a vital role in society and the quality, accessibility and form of higher education is highly dependent on financing, we must ensure that it remains a public good and a public responsibility. The type of society we strive for should also be reflected in the way we finance higher education.

Societies are being transformed in such a way that knowledge is increasing in importance and is considered to be the engine of development. To this end, Higher Education Institutions take on a central role in developing and sharing knowledge. Higher education can never be considered solely a means for improving economic competitiveness. Higher education has other aims and consequences among them forming the basis for tolerance, democracy, critical thinking and personal fulfilment. These objectives are to be taken into account when allocating funds to higher education. In this respect, funds allocated to the higher education sector should not merely be considered as an expense, but a long-term investment, of benefit to society as a whole.

2.1 Countries should have open discussion and agreement about Higher Education as public good and public responsibility
Students in different European countries don’t have the same level playing field. This is even more visible with the latest developments of increases in tuition fees and decreases in financing of students. European countries need to address these issues and discuss funding of Higher Education on European level, in order to agree on a common perception of the role and mission of higher education as well as on the minimum levels of public funding of higher education institutions and students. If not, this has the potential to lead to even more unbalanced mobility flows, especially within the EU. True European Higher Education Area is not possible without a discussion about the role of higher education in European countries and systems of financing of higher education.

2.2. Changes to the funding systems can be made only after accurate and extensive research and analysis of their long-term effect on students, HEIs and society
Changes to higher education systems have long-term effects, so debates about funding should be based on values, the role we want it to play in society and discussions with stakeholders rather than linear budget cuts that only take into account short-term effects. Policy changes must not take place without accurate and extensive research and analysis of their long-term effect on students, HEIs and society. In order to ensure that different points of view are raised, there should be more inclusion of stakeholders in the discussion about financing of higher education.

3. In order to ensure widening access and completion of higher education as well as the focus on students on their studies, financing of students should be increased.
Without proper student support, a large number of people would be excluded from higher education due to economic reasons. Decreases in financing of students and limitations to the availability of grants can lead to elitisation of higher education and exclusion of students from lower socio-economic background.
So in order to enable access and completion of higher education on an equal basis, we ask the governments for:
  • Increase in the overall amounts of grants: public grants should cover the minimum costs that students have with their studies. This will both enable wider participation in higher education as well as enable students to finish their studies on time, as they will be able to focus on their studies.
  • Reversal of the trend of repayable student support, as that can lead to indebtedness of young generation in general. The debt situation of young people in Europe is not yet we
  • More needs-based grants in order to focus on helping less well-off students rather than students with the best grades.

4. Reverse the trend of increasing student contributions
Student contributions to higher education have been increasing in the past decade. While higher education also brings private benefits to individuals, these benefits are then reflected on a societal level, in terms of lower unemployment rates, better health, lower crime rates, more societal involvement, higher tax returns and other trickle-down effects. The private benefits of graduates are hugely compensated by the graduates’ contribution to society, so we condemn the use of arguments based on graduates’ private return as lever for the introduction of tuition fees.
Making students pay for their education in order to fill the national funding gap in higher education is unacceptable and undermines the right to education for all. Additional to that, imposition of high fees on international students (or from non-EU countries in the case of EU Member States) is unethical, discriminatory, unacceptable and short-sighted. Fees for international students are a hinder to internationalisation and integration, especially creating an obstacle for the free-movers. Such measures oppose the idea of mobility and contradict the spirit of the Bologna Process.

5. Optimisation of the use of public funds and diversification of funding of Higher Education Institutions
As a solution to the funding gap, the diversification of allocation of funds to HEIs should be considered insofar as this does not limit the academic freedom or neglect the needs of different fields of study. Contributions from business, international public funding, philanthropic funding or service-related income needs to be explored further and countries should enable proper legal framework for stimulating such income sources. However, alternative sources of financing must not be used as pretext to reduce public funding, and never exceed the proportion of public funding.

Countries should also strive for optimisation of the use of existing public funds, and the first step should be an analysis of the expenditure of current resources, followed by an attempt to improve the manner of such expenditure, and thus ensure the better use of existing funds. Structures and mechanisms of internal allocation of resources should be constantly checked and revised where necessary.