Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

When you take a bunch of students’ union officers and the staff that support them on a study tour around Europe, you do spend the first few visits doing what Jim likes to describe as “look, they call a Twix a Raider!”.

As you disembark the bus that’s had one too many brushes with a low bridge or had to navigate a set of roadworks that weren’t on Google Maps, you’re looking frantically for familiar anchors – lecture theatres, welcome weeks, student societies and social learning spaces – that enable you to situate yourself in what you’re seeing.

As an example, everywhere we went on this year’s Wonkhe SUs study tour around Europe, we were able to derive a strange kind of comfort in the grim familiarity of a student housing crisis. In the UK landlords are blaming ours on increased regulation – but it’s clear that governments funding the transition to mass higher education through international student fees is the real culprit – and clearer still that governments across the continent are starting to realise that a Plan B is required to avoid losing elections and causing mass homelessness.

But as the miles on the tachograph tick up and the hours of sleep in each city tick down, you soon develop deeper insights – things it’s so easy to miss on the relentless hamster wheel of the academic year that we all seem unable to escape from back home.

Q sounds better with you

In Amsterdam, for example, UK student officers attended a decolonisation discussion event where attendees bemoaned the lack of delivery authority from the centre. “They pass these policies but they’re never acted on”, said one anguished activist unhappy at the endless layers of democracy that give multiple opportunities to object to an agenda.

But across town in discussion with university management from Amsterdam, it was clear to the SU staff on the trip that being more democratic and giving more power to staff and students caused those managers to be more mindful of their needs and concerns when making decisions. A lot of our delegates were less sure where they stood on the continuum when they met up again later.

Watching student leaders from across the three countries we visited wrestle with the way in which highly marketised internationalisation challenges the efficacy of traditional quality assurance processes was another example.

It’s easy to champion the upsides of having a more diverse student population, but it’s also becoming obvious everywhere that collegiate course committees and co-regulation also enable blind eyes to be turned and compromises to be made at scale that become so routine as to be normalised. As countries like the Netherlands draw a line on further recruitment, it feels like Europe will get there before us on the self-awareness and bravery required to tackle the issues.

And then there’s volunteerism. As we experienced in Scandinavia last year, across Belgium and the Netherlands we kept coming across student associations, councils and groups that were trusted to do more than they would be in the UK, and where solutions to problems were more often about students cooperating to solve them as they were about demanding the university do more.

Where we might see universities exhorted to do more on outreach or student success, in the Netherlands we were as likely to see huge student-led projects delivering on the issue. For every mental health service our sector might expand, in Belgium we saw more subject associations reducing loneliness and running study groups. That associative activity is baked into the traditions of wider society helps – but so does actively deciding that maintaining those traditions means supporting them to grow within higher education.

But it was Tom that really did it for us. Tom, from Twente.

Look at me now, you better believe it

The University of Twente is a public, STEM-focussed university located in Enschede, in the East of the Netherlands. It’s based around a large-ish campus on the outskirts of town – there’s about 14,000 students, around half of which live on campus and half of which mingle with locals in the city. It’s got some sports facilities, some teaching rooms, some student residences and five faculties. Same old, same old.

On the way, we’d noticed that like other Dutch universities, an annual election is staged for the equivalent of senate/academic board – and we’d dare anyone to argue that the “party platforms” of the two student groups vying for the student seats on the body (UReka and De Ambitieuze Student) don’t put the manifestos of UK student leaders to shame.

We’d also clocked that students themselves run two properties in the city – a student social centre (De Pakkerij) and a study centre (Wallstreet). It’s not just the buildings – although what a fabulous shop window into HE places like this are for the local population, and what a great use of increasingly redundant city centre space they represent. It’s the fact that students are running them – for eachother.

On arrival, once we’d piled into the campus’ impressive design lab to see a presentation from Tom and the rest of the team from Twente Students’ Union, what we noticed first was Eduroam, fancy furniture and a vision for a space that seemed to reflect a commitment to allow students from across the university’s subject portfolio to be creative as well as technical.

Tom did as others had done during the week – describing the way in which hundreds of students across the university carry out roles that we might combine into a tiny, centralised handful in the UK. He baffled our delegates by describing a governance system for a comparably funded students’ union that has almost no staff, and he impressed us with his presentation skills and pride over the university’s strong and thriving subject-based student associations.

But it was what he said when someone asked him about funding that really did it. “How do you afford to do what you do”, asked one of our lot. “We take out extra student debt to do it”, he said.

I’m so sick of this feeling

The previous day, we’d been on the way from Utrecht to Amsterdam when the news broke that for students from England, the maintenance loan would only be increased by a miserly 2.8 per cent next year.

For those of us who’ve spent careers trying to support student leaders to engage in policy, politics and influencing work, it’s hard to overstate how dispiriting it is to see a generation of young people treated so badly by a sitting government – one that doesn’t even have the basic decency or courage to admit that it’s actively choosing to de-prioritise them.

But as we got closer to the city of tulips and coffee shops and the conversation about the system developed, one thing that we were reminded of as our lot asked us about the system was how divorced from any real purpose the way in which we fund students to take part in higher education has become.

The basic features in England – a chunk of loan at three rates depending on where you live, with nothing for part-time study, and paid back in the same way as tuition fees – have now been unchanged literally for decades. Student finance no longer even tries to achieve particular aims – and so can’t even be judged to have failed to achieve them.

Across Europe, governments are trying to speed up students completing – in most of the systems students can pretty much module-gather at their own pace, enabled to take time out when there’s a death in the family, an illness hits or when a full time volunteering opportunity emerges for a semester.

But given the widespread concern at the sheer number of students in UK systems now claiming adaptions and adjustments to address the pinch points involved in everyone having to complete at the same pace as everyone else, surely a student finance system that enables some pausing or reduction of intensity would help.

In the Netherlands, student maintenance is delivered in multiple components – there’s a loan that’s written off after thirty years, another component based on your family’s income and a travelcard that enables you to get round the country and get to classes on time. Some of the components turn into gifts rather than loans if a student completes within a certain number of years.

We can’t see any government in the UK deciding to allow students to take ten years to complete a degree, while all the time being financed to do so on a loan whose repayment is income contingent. But giving students an entitlement to a certain number of years of student maintenance loan entitlement – one that allows them to step off or at least slow down when they need to – is surely more preferable to the “everyone at the same pace” model we have now that favours the rich, and punishes those that are disabled, become ill or have a death in the family.

In the Netherlands, if you enrol into a programme of higher education and it’s not for you, your debt is written off if you drop out before March, and rather than being tied into a housing contract, you’d be instantly relieved from having to keep the room on and pay the rent in a better regulated version of the social housing sector.

Why does our student finance system trap students into a long term and often harmful relationship with a university when often it’s not being there that would really benefit the student?

I’m done with the gray, I’m walking away

Until we’d got to Twente, we’d been puzzling over how we’d seen so many students involved in serving others. We speculated that we’d hardly seen any commuter students, or perhaps had seen no low-income students – but a glance at the social profile of some of the places we saw in Belgium disabused us of that notion.

In the low countries, we’d assumed maybe lower participation rates or a higher spend per head, with all the social inequality implications of those bars on the chart. But a quick look at the OECD’s Education at a Glance showed us a young participation rate broadly where ours sits.

Tom had revealed how so many students were working for each other in the country, but he’d not explained why. It was obvious that getting access to the student maintenance system while he is in his role was a major enabler, and one we should ensure is replicated if a review of the system emerges again. But in this game, it’s demand that matters as much as supply – and it was something his colleague Bram mentioned as we said our goodbyes that we thought was probably the key to it.

You might remember that moment during the slow exit from the pandemic, when Michelle Donelan declared to a higher education task force of vice chancellors that while students in England would be allowed back into classrooms for teaching and learning, they wouldn’t be able to do so for social learning or societies.

A vision of “education”, in other words, where social capital, community, service and even belonging don’t really matter. An atomised, individualised and commoditised experience – to be thinned out and churned out as inexpensively as possible, all while you pretend that the university “experience” is still available to all the voters whose kids and grandkids want it.

We were thinking of that damaging Donelan declaration as we walked back to the bus – because when we’d asked Bram what the government thought of the volunteerism, the students’ associations and the endless often risky activities, he’d said something startling. “They don’t like everything about higher education, but they are so proud of us.”

On probing, he meant what was done in his building – but not the services and what he did for students. He meant the thousands (and we mean thousands) of opportunities for students to serve others – supported by a funding system that enables it, a culture that expects it, and a framework that assumes it to be a pretty much essential part of students’ education, rather than some bolt-on luxury for worthy nerds in elite institutions.

Life won’t change if you never take a turn

The number one danger on trips like this is assuming that things are replicable or might work that are really grounded in wider factors like the country’s history, style of politics, economic model or wider values set.

And it’s true that extra-curricular participation is disproportionately high at secondary level in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, where more young people are involved in community projects, scouting or volunteering groups than in the UK.

But it is also striking that among adults with tertiary education in the Netherlands, 80 per cent of adults report participation in non-formal learning – significantly higher than the average, the second highest participation rate among countries with available data, and an impact that is growing as HE grows. It’s hard, in other words, to conclude anything other than the idea that higher education is helping to build not just the skills base, but social bonds and civic society in the Netherlands too.

We know that when students have the time and support to do so, their participation in non-formal, extra curricular and associative activity is good for their health, good for their formal outcomes and good for wider society. It’s a part of their education – not separate from it.

So as we continue our transition to a mass higher education system, we should be careful not to compromise on a vision for a rounded, rich and genuinely full-time student experience, just to make the numbers on the excel sheet add up. Doing so might literally enable more people to be in HE – but if it also means we end up content with students only having he time or money to do their degree, then more really will end up meaning less.

Over on Wonkhe SUs, Jim has been running a daily blog on findings and reflections from the study tour.

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