Students are too often considered as a homogeneous block. Inspired by a new book, Rachel Brooks discusses the different ways in which students are imagined by themselves, as well as by policy makers and educators in Europe.
Politicians, as well as academics, often assume that what it means to be a student in Europe today is common to all nation states – driven by the increase in cross-border educational mobility (through the Erasmus program), the development of a European Higher Education Areaand the widespread impact of the commodification and expansion of higher education.
Nevertheless, cross-national empirical evidence is rarely cited in support of such hypotheses. To fill this gap, over the past five years, together with colleagues, I have conducted detailed research in six European countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) on how the contemporary higher education student is conceptualized – drawing on the perspectives of higher education policy, media and staff, as well than students themselves.
Important commonalities between nations
Our research revealed important commonalities between these six nations. For example, many students have positioned themselves, at least to some extent, as future workers, even as they have rejected the ideas of human capital that typically underpin this construction within policies. Nevertheless, in most cases they refused to be seen by others as only future workers; instead, they valued the opportunity to become engaged learners, grow personally, and learn to make changes in the world around them as citizens.
Moreover, contrary to some assumptions in the academic literature, the majority of students involved in our research see no contradiction between focusing on obtaining employment after graduation and valuing various non-instrumental aspects of their experience. of higher education. Thus, understanding oneself as preparing for the labor market was not necessarily seen as incompatible with being an enthusiastic learner and/or an active citizen.
These commonalities across Europe in how students understood their own role as students were reflected in their opinions of how they thought they were perceived by others (another focus of our research). The six countries had in common the feeling that they could be marginalized because they were considered “in transition” or “not fully trained adults” and that they were only one coming citizen by policy makers and other social actors – and that being criticized as lazy and/or a threat to society (which they considered common) could have material impacts on their daily lives.
Indeed, there were also clear commonalities between the nations in the views of others – which often contrasted with the views of the students themselves. For example, higher education personnel and political actors generally did not view students as citizens – comparing their political activity and other forms of civic engagement less favorably to previous generations. Similarly, both groups tended to view students as instrumental in their approach to learning, apparently not recognizing the enthusiasm for education that was often at the heart of student narratives.
Persistent national differences
These important commonalities must, however, be set against the various differences, by nation, that our research has also revealed. These suggest that despite arguments about the homogenization of the European higher education space, student constructions remain, to some extent at least, influenced by national distinctions.
Some national differences are best explained by reference to relatively long-term historical and cultural trends. For example, in Denmark and Germany, the Humboldtian model of higher education remains influential. In their perception of themselves as learners, Danish and German students, but not their peers elsewhere, place considerable importance on the ability to self-determine the pace at which they study – associated with the Humboldtian idea of Lehrnfreiheit (the freedom to study), and is often inspired by the concept of Picture (which emphasizes the key role of education in personal development and self-cultivation) as a means of resisting what they perceived to be mainstream economistic political discourses.
National differences can also be explained by different higher education policies implemented in the different countries of the sample, and the principles that underpin them. For example, in countries where all or most students paid fees (England, Ireland and Spain), students (and other social actors) were more likely to regard their transition to the labor market as a matter of personal investment and benefit than in the other three countries.
In Denmark, Germany and Poland, on the other hand, the focus has generally been on societal contribution and benefits. These differences are likely to be related both to the payment of fees (or not) and also to broader social norms regarding the purpose of higher education – public good principles are generally articulated more frequently and explicitly in systems that have retained public funding models.
While the values and principles that underpin higher education policy are clearly important in explaining some of the national differences in student constructs, the same is true of other aspects of social policy and of the public offer.
In Spain, for example, due to centuries-old traditions of ‘family social citizenship’ where parents were held responsible for supporting young adults, higher education was less often seen as a distinct period of preparation for adulthood – not least because many Spanish students continue to live in the parental home throughout their their university course.
This can be compared to the situation in Denmark, where many students have already made the transition to independent living before undertaking their studies, facilitated by state support which is underpinned by assumptions about the importance of “individualized social citizenship”.
Our research thus highlights that, despite the pressures of homogenization exerted by the Bologna process and the establishment of a European area of higher education, as well as the more general tendencies towards massification and commodification, How we understand higher education students, and they understand themselves, is also affected by specific national cultures, histories and political trajectories.
This is important not only to help us better understand the lived experiences of students across Europe, but also to our broader knowledge of the processes of Europeanization and, in some cases, the persistence of important national norms. We must not assume that young people who cross national borders for all or part of their studies share the same understanding of what it means to be a student today – and ensure that our institutional practices and pedagogies are sensitive to this.
For more information, see the author’s recently published Open Access book, Building the higher education student: perspectives from across Europe(co-written with Achala Gupta, Sazana Jayadeva, Anu Lainio and Predrag Lažetić)
Note: This article was first published on our partner site, LSE Impact. It gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. The research on which this article is based was funded by a Consolidator grant from the European Research Council (grant reference: EUROSTUDENTS_681018). Featured image credit: Red on Unsplash