In Focus: The European Students’ Union – The voice of students in Europe

This is the first post in a series of posts introducing organisations, groups, and processes relevant for higher education in Europe and world wide. The purpose is to compile simple and accessible information for Hedda students and our readers world wide.

In this post, we will put focus on an interest organisation that represents an important stakeholder in higher education – the students – on European level: the European Students’ Union (ESU). 

The European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organization of national unions of students in Europe. It has 45 members from 38 countries, covering the area from Iceland in the northwest to Israel in the south and Azerbaijan in the east (for a list of the members check the ESU web site).

The objectives of ESU

The aim of ESU is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students on the European level towards all relevant stakeholders and institutions in particular the European Union, the Bologna Follow Up Group, the Council of Europe and UNESCO.

ESU brings together, resources, trains and informs national student representatives on higher education policy developments at the European level. ESU’s work concentrates on supporting its members through seminars, trainings, campaigns and conferences relevant to students, conducting European-wide research projects, providing information services and producing a variety of publications for students, policy-makers and higher education professionals.

Besides representing the views of students in Europe, ESU aims to strengthen students’ participation and to increase the student input into higher education policy and decision making at all levels. ESU promotes a higher education system based on values such as quality, equity and accessibility for all. Furthermore, ESU aims to be viewed and respected as a source of expertise on higher education policy and to build links and foster an exchange of information, ideas and experiences among students and student platforms at a regional and global level (for more information on specific activities see the plan of work and activity reports from ESU).

Membership of ESU

All of ESU’s members have to fulfill certain criteria, they need to be open to all students in their respective country regardless of political persuasion, religion, ethnic or cultural origin, sexual orientation or social standing. Furthermore, members also need to be student-run, autonomous, and representative and operate according to democratic principles. Through its members, ESU represents over 11 million students in Europe. Additionally, ESU also has 11 Associate Organizations. These organizations have to have students or local/national student organizations as members, must be democratically run for students and by students, have objectives in line with ESU objectives and have members from at least 8 countries parties to the European Cultural Convention (for a list see ESU’s web site).

History of ESU

ESU was founded in 1982 under the name West European Student Information Bureau (WESIB) by the national student unions from Norway, UK, Sweden, Iceland, France, Denmark and Austria. Back then it served purely as a platform to exchange information between the different national student structures and had no lobbying function on the European level. The political changes in the late 80s and the demise of the Soviet Union let to WESIB opening up to student unions from the East and dropping the “W” in its name.

With the growing influence of the European level in higher education policies and especially after the start of the Bologna Process in 1999 ESIB, as ESU was called then, gained influence also as a lobby and student interest organization. However, it was only with the Ministerial Communique 2001 in Prague that students were accepted as an official stakeholder in the Bologna Process and ESIB became a consultative member of the Bologna Follow Up Group.

At the following ministerial conference 2003 in Berlin ESIB, together with EUA, ENQA and EURASHE received the mandate to prepare guidelines for quality assurance in Europe. At the ministerial summit in Bergen 2005 the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area were accepted by the ministers. This underlined the important position ESIB had gained over the years in the Bologna Process. Since ESIB was more and more having the character of a representative umbrella structure and not anymore that of an information sharing network, the organization changed its name to the European Students’ Union in 2007.

Organisational structure

Over the years ESU changed its working structure several times, the last time in November 2011. The new structure will be effective by July 2012. It will consist of a three person presidency consisting of a chairperson and two vice-chairpersons, one for the internal and financial responsibilities and one for external representation. All three will be based at the ESU office in Brussels.

The presidency steers the organization on a daily basis and also coordinates the secretariat and the employees. Furthermore, a seven person executive committee controls the presidency, works on specific content areas and takes all decisions on a monthly basis. All these representatives are elected for one year. Elections take place at the Board Meeting of ESU, which meets twice a year and consists of representatives of every member union. It is the highest decision making body and all major decisions have to be taken here (e.g. decisions on statutes, the budget, the plan of work, policy papers, membership etc.). The Board Meeting also elects a Commission for Internal Audit that controls the finances of ESU.

Furthermore, ESU has several experts’ pools where student experts in different fields (e.g. quality assurance) are brought together, trained and from which ESU but also national unions of students can draw expertise when needed.

Main activities

Besides the two Board Meetings, ESU also organizes two European Student Conventions every year. These conferences combine panel debates, workshops and other forums and take place in the country that holds the EU presidency at the time. They address one specific topic and are sued for policy debates also with other stakeholders (for an overview see here).

Other events and training are often carried out in the framework of one of ESU’s larger projects. These projects are often externally funded and address sub-dimensions of the higher education policy in Europe (list of projects can be found here).

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This post is written by Jens Jungblut who has earlier been active in ESU, and is currently a PhD candidate at University of Oslo.