Europeanization through the Bologna Process and the Europe 2020 Strategy encourages the marketization of higher education, treating it as an economic resource and commodity. Sacha Garben argues that considering the fundamental importance of these issues, which touch on the core of our views on what an equitable and egalitarian society entails, it is imperative that the decisions that are being taken are democratically legitimate and that policy makers are accountable for the measures they enact.

Many will remember the stunning picture of an open-mouthed Prince Charles and Camilla inside their Rolls-Royce during an attack by tuition fees protesters that dominated the press coverage on what at that time was Britain’s worst political violence in years. The image is so impactful because it catches a moment in the political life of the country and the life of its heir to the throne, but also because of its subtext. It is somehow symbolic of the UK’s class society, touching upon its persistent socio-economic inequality, and the role of higher education therein. Joggling the Royal’s ride were angry students, upset about the imminent rise in tuition fees. Their protests were unsuccessful. Since the 2011 reforms, the average undergraduate tuition fee is now £8,527 per year or more, and this has been linked to a steep drop in university applications for the year 2012/2013. Since the 1960s, the UK has moved from a system in which the taxpayer footed the entire bill, to a system where students contribute more than anywhere else in Europe.

Although perhaps not to the same degree, similar debates and reforms are taking place all over Europe. In Spain, where fee levels at public universities are set by the autonomous communities in which they are located, tuition fees increased in 2011 by between 3.6 and 7.6 %. In the Netherlands, the government has proposed to abolish the study grant for Master courses, limit students’ public transport travel privileges and a measure has been introduced to raise the fees of students that incur a year or more of delay in their studies by €3000. In Ireland the €1500 tuition fee has been renamed a “student contribution” and has risen to €2000, with a planned further increase to €3000 by 2015. These developments are linked to educational expansion, the budgetary strain caused by ageing populations and rising health spending, aggravated by the economic crisis. The response to these challenges of many European governments has been to introduce spending cuts in higher education, although it they have often encountered strong public opposition. Still, not all countries have decided to translate these cuts into higher fees or less finance, and certain countries (Germany, France and Portugal) have actually provided new investment in higher education since the start of the crisis.

Funding, fees and student finance are deeply controversial and divisive issues, strongly linked with views on what is good for the country and its future. It is understandable that the debates in this area are predominantly national. This corresponds to the fact that the provision and modalities of funding, which is closely interwoven with the overall organization of a higher education system, remains a national matter under Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Still, the relationships between funding, equity and efficiency of higher education have been gaining increasing European attention over the past 10 years, particularly in connection with the realization of the goals of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the Bologna Process. Generally speaking, the main effect of this Europeanization is the increasing marketization of higher education. As greater emphasis is put on the economic aspects of higher education, there is mounting pressure to have universities perform efficiently and liaise more closely with the business community, both in terms of content and funding, challenging the traditional public service conception of higher education.

The EU encourages Member States to raise expenditure on higher education, but the reason is the “strong need for highly qualified labour” on the European market. This means that the EU promotes not just any public expenditure on education, but targeted investment, aimed at increasing levels of employability through the increase of job-specific skills. The Council and the Commission encourage the involvement of employers and labour market institutions in the design and delivery of programmes, more practical experience in courses and the adaptation of funding mechanisms to reward success in equipping students for the labour market. Funding policies are becoming increasingly scrutinized for their efficiency, and there is pressure to look into the possibilities of diversifying sources of investment. Slowly but steadily, a trend is emerging to increase not only pubic expenditure, but also private, through tuition fees and collaboration with the business community.

Although the Commission is keen to include an equity dimension in these discussions, there is a definite desire to marry this principle with the holy grail of efficiency. Similar influences can be detected in the intergovernmental Bologna Process, which has established a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) with a partial harmonization of degree cycles, in order to improve the employability of graduates and enhance the international competitiveness of Europe’s higher education systems. Its main feature, the creation of a three-tier Bachelor-Master-Doctorate system, has been linked to a desire on the part of the participating governments to reduce the public cost of higher education by shortening the length of university education, limiting public funding to the first stage Bachelor degree and increasing the (financial) autonomy of higher education institutions.

The question of funding, fees and student finance is clearly no longer a purely national affair. National decisions are steered and constrained by Europe, be it in the form of the EU Institutions or the Member State governments in their European guise. The two leading principles that are pursued on the European level are those of efficiency and, in second place, equity. This might have the air of politically neutrality, but it is important to point out that this is not a domain that lends itself very well for technocratic policy. Any decision has highly relevant implications and distributive effects, and should therefore be taken following democratic procedures maximising accountability and legitimacy. Therefore, it is worrying that many of the most crucial and influential decisions are taken in intergovernmental contexts and implemented by means of soft law – of which the democratic legitimacy is doubtful. The Bologna Process is an intergovernmental policy forum, participation in which is voluntary and whose decisions are non-binding, suffering from all the accountability defects inherent in international policy making – magnified by its soft law character. The Lisbon/Europe 2020 Strategy does take place within the EU’s institutional framework, but is an area where the EU’s democratic deficit is particularly worrisome, for lack of transparent procedures and no involvement of the Parliament. Arguably, these decisions should remain in the national political domain. But if we decide to pursue them on a European level, we should be skeptical about the use of soft law and need to consider a stronger and more democratic basis for these important policies.

This article is based on the August 2012 LEQS paper ‘The Future of Higher Education in Europe: The Case for a Stronger Base in EU Law’.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Sacha Garben – London School of Economics and Political Science
Sacha Garben is a fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Prior to joining the LSE in September 2011, Garben worked at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. She studied at Maastricht University, the College of Europe in Bruges. She pursued her PhD at the European University Institute in Florence entitled EU Higher Education Law – The Bologna Process and Harmonization by Stealth. She also spent a semester at Harvard Law School as a visiting researcher.

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