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Social dimension of European higher education: State-of-the-art and challenges ahead

On 16 September 2011, the European Commission published a long-awaited EURYDICE study, Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Funding and the Social Dimension 2011. Released practically at the same time as the OECD’s report Education at a Glance 2011 and a new EU strategy for modernisation of higher education (Modernisation Communication), this new report is at risk of being overlooked and attracting less attention than it deserves. Yet, the issue of the social dimension in higher education and its role in the modernisation of higher education is very timely and should be effectively prioritised on the European agenda (see ACA Newsletter – Education in Europe, August 2011).

The report makes an attempt to clarify the widely-used (and misused) concept of the social dimension in higher education by reiterating key European definitions developed by the EU, OECD and within the Bologna process. Thus, expanding “opportunities to higher education to as large a proportion of the population as possible” or widening access to higher education to as many European citizens as possible, independent of social and economic background, is broadly viewed as lying at the heart of the social dimension concept. Importantly, based on a stock-tacking exercise that covers EU member states, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey, this 120-page report looks at national policies on access to higher education, funding and student support. Specifically, it considers the varied perceptions of the scale and nature of these issues in different countries, and distinguishes between two major approaches in evidence across Europe: focused action targeted at under-represented groups in society, or more ‘universal’ policy measures. Finally, the report investigates the impact of fees and financial support mechanisms through concise national information sheets providing summarized overviews of the existing links between fees and support instruments in each system.

Despite its promising title, the report tackles the issue of higher education modernisation en passant or as a framework for its specific focus on social dimension issues. This can be explained, however, by the fact that the EURYDICE report is to play a supporting role, by feeding this topic into the more overarching Modernisation Communication. As stressed by the European Students’ Union, the EURYDICE report reconfirms the need for an improved Europe-wide effort to monitor and guide social dimension issues (such as the European Observatory on Social Dimension, which is currently under development).

EURYDICE European Students’ Union