January 2011

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Factors for analysing student participation

Albert Basart Capmany - Secretary of the AQU Student Comission

The role of students as a transformation agent of university education has been widely recognised in the communiqués and declarations that have defined the development of the European Higher Education Area over the past ten years. In the same vein, but at the level of Catalonia, the institutions and authorities involved in university education (universities, policy makers, quality assurance agencies) have progressively introduced changes and carried out actions that have seen progress made in this regard, with the student body taking a more active part in different levels of action and decision-making.

Right from the time when AQU Catalunya began its review activities at the end of the nineties, students have been involved in quality assurance processes. Student involvement was enhanced considerably in 2005 with the launch of the QA training programme for students and the inclusion of students in external review teams. The Agency, which was a pioneer in promoting student involvement in review processes, again broke new ground in the early part of 2010 with the setting up of the AQU Student Commission, which is a standing commission composed of twelve students from different Catalan universities. Its work involves broadening and coordinating student participation in the Agency’s review activities and advising it regarding projects that have a direct impact on the student body.

The aim of one of the various lines of action started by the Student Commission is to analyse the phenomenon of student participation in university enhancement practices. The first activity in this analysis, a workshop held at the Rovira i Virgili University on 15 December 2010, looked at the mechanisms and culture of participation in higher education systems abroad. Representatives of student organisations from European countries as well as transnational associations active in Catalonia attended the workshop, and who were of great help in the analysis made of the factors affecting the levels and quality of student participation. Several of these factors are outlined below:


The level of understanding that students have of the different representation mechanisms that are available to them is one of the first key factors in understanding the low levels of participation. University students are often unaware of the possibilities that are available to them for participating in university life, making their demands known and collaborating to create a model university that is to the liking of all the stakeholders that interact there. The dissemination of information on the mechanisms for participating in representative bodies that students can understand and follow is fundamental for building active and truly representative student participation.

All institutions involved in higher education have information accessible to anybody interested in becoming involved in student representation bodies. The underlying problem is that institutions and students speak different languages. It was stressed throughout the workshop that work needs to be done to overcome this divide. In this regard, the role of the different social networks was underscored as a way of improving the dissemination of information on these aspects.


Secondly, and with the subject of disinformation having been discussed at the workshop, the point was made of the need to motivate students so that they participate in university affairs. In this aspect, a good communication strategy is again a key issue. All students need to know the effect of actions by their representatives.

There is also a need for a sense of commitment in society to listen to what students have to say. Efforts made so far to enable students to play an active role in HEIs can be said to be significant, yet still insufficient. The fact that in certain countries the student representatives from all of the universities have direct contact as interlocutors with the minister responsible for universities offers food for thought. The best way to motivate students so that they participate is by showing them that their actions do have an effect on the educational model that they receive.


A third factor to take into account in Catalonia is the existing model for representation and participation. According to geographical context, there is a more or less marked distinction between student participation in what are academic bodies and student participation in terms of culture, leisure and logistics (with organisations that deal exclusively with guidance and assistance for students from other countries). An analysis needs to be made of the degree of assimilation between student participation and academic representation in Catalonia, and if the distinction is a direct consequence of the split between duties and responsibilities resulting from the various ways in which student participation in university affairs is organised. Aside from different opinions of the model’s suitability or not, it was clear from the workshop that student participation is organised and that it is motivated.

Regarding the model for representation and participation, the subject of links between student organisations and political parties was also discussed during the workshop. The European Students'Union (ESU) representative, for example, pointed out that all student associations forming part of the ESU are "democratic, inclusive, representative and independent". A study is required of the student associations active in the higher education system in Catalonia and whether, according to these premises, they are appropriate.

Over the coming months, the AQU Catalunya Student Commission is committed to defining a series of enhancement proposals for student participation, based on the analysis of the abovementioned factors. These initiatives should serve to consolidate the role of students as defined by the European Higher Education Area.


Generalitat de Catalunya

Via Laietana, 28, 5a planta 08003 Barcelona. Spain. Tel.: +34 93 268 89 50

© 2011 AQU Catalunya - Legal number B-21.910-2008