The Bologna Follow-up Group has developed a new strategic document that defines ten principles and guidelines to strengthen the social dimension of higher education in Europe. Ninoslav Scukanec Schmidt and Robert Napier, co-chairs of the Advisory Group in charge of drafting the Principles and Guidelines, outline the content and propose a dialogue aimed at developing fit-for purpose policy measures to enabling tangible progress towards diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.
The Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) through its Advisory Group on the Social Dimension of higher education, has been developing a new forward-looking strategic document 2020-2030: “Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)”. The BFUG is proposing to include the document in the future 2020 Rome Ministerial Communique so that the education ministers of EHEA countries politically commit to its implementation.
The document defines ten principles for the social dimension for the upcoming decade as the basis for conceptualising different policies for social dimension enhancement. The guidelines are recommendations intended to advise policy makers on how to implement the principles in practice. Therefore, the document allows for continuous improvement of social dimension policies and their effective implementation at the national and institutional level.
Enlarged definition of the “social dimension”
The Principles and Guidelines take as a starting point the definition of the social dimension provided in the 2007 London Communique, namely that the composition of the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should correspond to the heterogeneous social profile of society at large in the EHEA countries. This approach embraces a social justice agenda, because it includes policy levers for improving the prospects of underrepresented, disadvantaged and vulnerable students.
The novelty of the Principles and Guidelines is that they go beyond this definition and have enlarged it by stressing that the social dimension encompasses the creation of an inclusive environment in higher education that fosters equity and diversity and is responsive to the needs of local communities. It means that public authorities and higher education institutions need to integrate the principles into the core higher education mission: learning and teaching, research, innovation, knowledge exchange and outreach, institutional governance and management, as well as in the policies for empowering present and future students and higher education staff.
Improving the social dimension by moving beyond widening accessibility clauses and focusing on a public good agenda by integrating the social dimension principles in the core higher education mission and governance is a crucial step forward strengthening inclusion, equity, and diversity in our higher education systems and institutions.
The new social dimension principles
The first principle aims to ensure that the social dimension becomes central to higher education strategies at the system and institutional level, as well as at the EHEA and the EU level. The social dimension should interconnect the principles of accessibility, equity, diversity and inclusion into all laws, policies and practices concerning higher education such that access, participation, progress and completion of higher education depend primarily on students’ abilities, not on their personal characteristics or circumstances beyond their direct influence.
Secondly, it is important to ensure a holistic approach to the social dimension aiming to create coherent policies from early childhood education, through schooling to higher education and throughout lifelong learning. This requires more connectivity between the work of those responsible for higher education and other ministries and sectors, which can bring about change only in a joint effort.
Reliable data is a necessary precondition for an evidence-based improvement of the social dimension of higher education. Higher education systems should define the purpose and goals of collecting certain types of data, taking into account the particularities of the national legal frameworks. Adequate capacities to collect, process and use such data to inform and support the social dimension of higher education should be developed.
Public authorities should provide sufficient and sustainable funding and financial autonomy to higher education institutions, allowing them to build adequate capacity to embrace diversity and contribute to equity and inclusion in higher education.
Higher education institutions need to strengthen their capacity in responding to the needs of a more diverse student and staff body, particularly through improving initial and continuing professional training for academic and administrative staff. Effective counselling and guidance for potential and enrolled students should help widen their access to, participation in and completion of higher education studies. International mobility programs in higher education should be structured and implemented in a way that fosters diversity, equity and inclusion.
Lastly, community engagement should be considered as a process whereby higher education institutions engage with external community stakeholders to undertake joint activities that can be mutually beneficial. Like social dimension policies, community engagement should be embedded in core missions of higher education. Such engagement provides a holistic basis on which universities can address a broad range of societal needs, including those of vulnerable, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, while enriching their teaching, research and other core functions.
A step forward
The current Covid-19 crisis amplifies a need for such a document, because we have seen the importance of acting as one interconnected community and not as insulated higher education institutions. The values of excellence, economic dynamics and efficiency have been joined by those of solidarity, equity, responsibility and compassion. The Principles and Guidelines are designed to further foster these values in the academic community.
After adoption of the document in Rome, public authorities should engage in a policy dialogue with higher education institutions and other relevant stakeholders about how the Principles and Guidelines can be translated and implemented both at national system and institutional level. Such policy dialogue should result in fit-for purpose policy measures, respecting institutional autonomy, avoiding any unnecessary administrative burden, and thus enabling tangible progress towards diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.
The BFUG Advisory Group on the Social Dimension, co-chaired by the authors of this article, developed the above Principles and Guidelines in the period 2018-2020. The Advisory Group consists of 17 members who represent EHEA member countries and consultative members (European University Association, European Students’ Union and Education International). The highly effective and visionary work of the Advisory Group resulted in the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines from 48 EHEA countries at the BFUG meeting in Kiev on March 4, 2020.
The expected adoption of the Principles and Guidelines by the EHEA ministers in Rome on November 19, 2020 could provide a new impulse for the social dimension in higher education, which should be seen as an investment towards building more inclusive and cohesive societies. This article is based on the text of the Principles and Guidelines and the authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of all of the BFUG members to this.
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