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The role of students in universities is changing and should change. With an increasing focus on skills building and individual learning paths, students can no longer passively receive education. Nina de Winter from the European Students’ Union (ESU) explains why the future of learning is in the hands of students and how this comes with a great responsibility.

The current Covid-19 crisis is a good example of how students can shape the future of learning. Governments, institutions and teachers are struggling to find the right ways to switch to online learning and online assessment for students. The question is, however, where are students positioned in this struggle? We hear that students are worried about the recognition of their courses, they have concerns about their mobility programmes, they have doubts about the integrity of their assessment procedures. But where institutions and teachers have the responsibility of finding the answers, students are often not directly involved, even though they do have a clear opinion on what is important to them.

Take the example of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, which had planned to conduct online exams involving the use of a proctoring software, which monitors students’ computer desktop, webcam and audio. This decision had been taken without first consulting the students. Students started a petition because they saw the chosen assessment method as a violation of their privacy. The petition has already been signed by almost 5000 students. The university has therefore reconsidered its decision, and most of the faculties now offer an alternative way to doing the exams. Why was this petition necessary? Why did the students and institution not cooperate on this matter from the very beginning?

This issue is not new: ESU has been advocating for better student involvement for many years and student-centred learning has been on the agenda of the Bologna Process already since 2009. Nevertheless the implementation of student-centred learning  in practice is still lacking, as we can conclude from the 2018 “Bologna With Student Eyes” report and an article by ESU Expert Aleksandar Susnjar and Vice President Gohar Hovhannisyan titled “Bridging the Policy-Practice Gap: Student-Centred Learning from the Students’ Perspective”, forthcoming in the Routledge International Handbook on Student-Centred Learning and Teaching in Higher Education in July.

Implementation of student-centred learning in the university environment

Here is where it comes to the crucial challenge: Implementing student-centred learning is not about implementing new methods for students, it is about students co-creating the learning experience.

For student-centred learning you can draft many beautiful policies, but for it to be successful it must be part of the university’s environment; it is a change of culture. Student-centred learning, including active learning and flexibility, can only be established if students hold the responsibility of being active learners. Students should claim ownership of their learning programmes.

Even though it is the responsibility of the institution to provide the right environment to do this, students have the responsibility to take this initiative. This needs to be promoted by teachers and the educational infrastructure from the first moment students enter the university. If we do not stimulate students to take this attitude from the very beginning of the learning process, we cannot expect them to be active learners. Unfortunately, the policies of higher education institutions rarely consider the need for students to be prepared for student-centred learning.

Positively stimulating an active attitude

Empowering students needs to be at the core of academic support. Current university education is often geared to push students to learn: students must prove in a test that they studied; students must show up at lectures or they will be dismissed from the course; all students must follow the same mandatory courses.

Instead, the educational system needs to be designed to focus on supporting students to find their learning path. If the university environment would provide students with more flexibility and ownership over the programmes, students would automatically take a more active approach.

Student representation

The ESU “Bologna With Student Eyes” survey of 2018 shows that students want to be a part of governance, decision-making and improvements, but they do not perceive their roles as being meaningful. Fifty percent of students’ unions reported in the survey that students do not feel that they are seen as full members of their academic communities. Especially at the programme level, students do not feel involved; only 36% of the students’ unions (15 out of 43) reported that their students are perceived as equal partners at this level.

Reforms must target students’ place in the system to ensure partnership and possibilities for real involvement. It is important to include students in discussions about learning and teaching, to have a constant dialogue about their learning process. 

Only when working together can the best solutions be found. There is an institutional responsibility to provide for the infrastructure and enable students to be active, but students must step up and claim their position. It is up to the students to show that their opinion is valuable and that it matters.

And then, indeed, sometimes students need to start a petition to show the institution that it is better to have the discussion all together. As in Tilburg, in the end this led to a result that satisfies both the institution and the students.


Nina de Winter
European Students’ Union (ESU)
Nina de Winter is a member of the Executive Committee of the European Students’ Union (2019-2020). She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. In addition to her tasks at ESU, she is works for the NGO Yoga and Sport for Refugees in Lesvos, Greece, where she is responsible for finances, fundraising and the running programme. She is also a member of the EUA Learning & Teaching Steering Committee.

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