Eurostudent III: Welcome to the Future of the EU

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

This week I had the pleasure of visiting Ljubljana, Slovenia for the unveiling of the Eurostudent III Report (not officially online as of this blogging). As the title may suggest, this is the third report on an EU-based survey of 23 countries on the “social dimension” of higher education. For context, Europe has seen an increase of 27 percent in the share of the national population undertaking higher education between 1998 and 2005. And this trend is likely to continue. Higher education has become very popular in Europe, and people are taking advantage of relatively low costs. However, this is changing. Costs continue to climb in most EU countries, and all are struggling with how to alter an entrenched system of higher education that have historically provided free or almost free. There is increasing pressure on low-fee countries to raise their tuition prices to meet the fiscal demands for this widening participation.

Because of these new trends, there is an increased interest in student retention in these nations. Once the doors of higher education begin to open, the number and percent of students who leave before graduation seems to grow exponentially. And this has a high cost of institutions and society, as the EU is beginning to find. One must remember that historically, higher education in Europe was extraordinarily selective. Even today, many of the nation’s represented in the Eurostudent survey have various filters for students, either through mandatory testing and quota systems for the professions. So student departure was never much of an issue. But it is today.

According to the Eurostudent report, students in Europe are looking a whole lot more like American students in many ways: more students appear to be attending in a part-time capacity; there exists an underrepresentation of low SES groups in every participating country; and students are having to cope with rising costs and “ability to pay” issues. Who knew? And, for perhaps the first time, people are talking about the non-cognitive issues of university education and the reasons why students leave.

There is an interesting dynamic at play in the EU which was discussed at the Slovenia meeting, and one that we are all familiar: brain drain, which perhaps is the ultimate “student retention” issue. The EU has become much more mobile for students in the past decade, due in part to the Erasmus program (which leverages student mobility) and also the Bologna Process (which leverages standardization of higher education in the EU). I reported back on March 7 (Study Abroad: An Old Idea Taking on New Growth) about the EU discussion on study abroad issues and moving students around. This is a big challenge for the EU because of issues I had not thought of at the time.

For affluent students, study abroad isn’t much of an issue, with regard to cost. Same in the US and Canada. If you have the dinero, the rest is easy. But for low-SES students reported in the Eurostudent III report, cost is a huge barrier. But affluence, let alone income, is relative. From Slovenia to Ireland to Germany, the cost of living is quite different. Sure, the Purchase Price Parity (PPP) Index is also relative, but what if you have X dollars in Country A and decide to study in Country B, where your X dollars are only worth X/5? You with me? Now, factor in the added cost of higher education in Country B, which is three times the price as in the home country, and the divide now expands to a factor of 15 (I was a UManitoba math major, so I hope I got this right; if I didn’t, I attended UMontana!). Thus, mobility is very much dependent on money. Scholarships are available through Erasmus, but they aren’t large enough of them to impact the SES scale on any true scale.

Let’s consider a second challenge. Our Country A student manages to go to Country B; earns a degree; sees the world; and has an opportunity. Considering that the borders are slowly eroding in the EU community (which is a great thing, mostly), the opportunities to apply one’s trade in another economy, one that is more global, progressive, and, well, attractive financially, is interesting to say the least. So our student stays and earns five times the Euros as at home. Yes, brain drain is a compelling issue for Europeans to deal with.

Higher education is a complex issue for societies, regardless of where one resides. The EU, buoyed by perhaps the strongest currency in the world, is looking forward to using higher education as a lever for continued growth. Issues such as brain drain will never disappear, and the EU is unlikely to develop enough public policy to totally ameliorate these issues. But through Eurostudent III, we’ll be able to continue to see how students are faring across the European Union.

Congrats to Dominic Orr, the project director, and the other collaborators for an outstanding effort (and great hospitality!).

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