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Ligia Deca is the Chairperson (2008-2010) of the European Students’ Union (ESU). As a Chairperson, she is the main policy and organisational coordinator of ESU, while being the official ESU representative in the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the European Union Lisbon higher education setting and UNESCO. She has recently graduated a Master degree in Maritime and Port Management, after finishing a Bachelor degree in Maritime Engineering. Her experience regarding educational policies started while being General Secretary of the National Alliance of Students' Organisations in Romania (ANOSR) from 2005-2006 and President of ANOSR from 2006-2007. Before being elected as Chairperson, she was a member of the Gender Equality Committee within ESU.
Ligia Deca, Chairperson of the European Students’ Union, reflects on the role of the students in higher education and their necessities to become not only good professionals, but also responsible citizens capable of adapting themselves to the ever-changing world.
“Students should be regarded as active and equal members of the academic community”
What’s the role of the students in the development of higher education?
The role of the students has always been quite crucial. If we look at the history of higher education, we see that in Europe, the University of Bologna was actually founded and leaded by students, so students are in a way both the progress and sometimes the basic historical factor when it comes to academic communities.
They have an important role, but they only have this role if they are not regarded as clients, but as active and equal members of the academic community. So if they are allowed to be involved in decision-making, if they are regarded as active participants in the creation of strategies, programmes and curricula, then their role becomes crucial. And at the same time it creates that feeling of ownership that students can and should have for an academic community. Some campuses are extremely united and you see that the students feel as in a family, but there are other universities that have this alienation feeling from the part of the students, who are not involved with trying to make the institution progress in any way. So the role of the students depends to a large extent on how they are regarded and on the issues of students’ participation and students’ rights.
With the whole trend of moving towards student centred learning, their role will become even higher because increasingly students are not supposed to just receive knowledge but to share knowledge. We are moving from just transmission of information to classroom dialogue, sharing of information and to individualised learning paths, which means that every student should be able to adapt the academic path according to its talents and potential. And it is quite important that students are given the choice and the feedback option throughout their career, be it on a bachelor, master or doctorate level.
What impact has the European Students’ Union (ESU) on governmental and non-governmental organizations such as UNESCO?
We had been involved in the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education and since then we have been cooperating in a number of areas with UNESCO. UNESCO and ESU have a lot of common aims when it comes to higher education, for example education for all is a desire that both students and UNESCO share.
In addition, UNESCO needs partners from the stakeholder side, and ESU provides an essential input from the European students side. As such, our cooperation has been quite good, especially in the past months. During the preparation of the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education we got even closer because UNESCO and ESU have facilitated a meetingwith students from all around the world to have a common student voice towards the World Conference. We have, thus, interacted a lot more and we have been invited as a member of the programme committee so we had a say as for the content of the Conference, which was very fortunate. We regret though that there were not a lot of student speakers and we understand that there are a lot of political pressures in an inter-governmental organization. However, in 1998 the student participation from NGOs and national delegations was much higher. Even though UNESCO made clear that this should also be the case in 2009, many national delegations did not act according to these recommendations.
So my call is for more students’ participation and for recognizing students as full and equal partners.
What are the educational necessities of the students to become professionals and active citizens to solve the current challenges?
Students first of all need to access higher education. If we want them to become both professionals and develop their personality as active citizens, they have to have access to every level of education. This access should not be restricted by financial filters and we firmly believe that also academic filters are quite unjust for those that come from lower socio-economic backgrounds or from disadvantaged groups, as not always primary and secondary education give the same level of preparation.
They also require a high level of “soft skills”. We need students able to be critical, so we need critical thinking, problem-solving, entrepreneurship skills, and also we need to be able to quickly adapt to an ever-changing labour market to face the global challenges. So in this regard universities should be able to provide this type of training rather than very narrow programmes that only prepare for a certain niche subject instead of giving a broad preparation with the capacity to adapt to both society and labour market changes.
It’s a conglomerate of issues: it’s about new modes of teaching and about what curricula we are assembling. It’s also about open resources. Universities shouldn’t make research papers a secret to be more competitive, but they should rather cooperate to have an overall higher level of higher education and benefit from the increasing diversity of the student body.
Quality is essential here, as is enlarged access. Having access for everyone but a low quality higher education doesn’t benefit anyone. There is a tendency of allowing everybody to access higher education, but in different types of institutions that offer different types of programmes. We agree with diversity, but in some institutions students don’t have any access to research, for example. And breaching the link between teaching and research is quite unfortunate, as only through bringing into the classroom the latest scientific discoveries you can actually expect students to progress and to adapt to the current level of the knowledge within the world.
So to sum up, we need access and balanced, academically meaningful mobility for students to be able to experience other worlds, we need student-centred learning, we need teaching and research at the same time, and of course we need equity in higher education.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.