ISA abstract

Constructing and contesting the ‘European student’: findings from a six nation comparative study

There are currently over 35 million students within Europe and yet, to date, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which understandings of ‘the student’ are shared.  Thus, a central aim of this paper is to investigate how the contemporary higher education (HE) student is conceptualised and the extent to which this differs both within nation-states and across them. This is significant in terms of implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that are made about common understandings of ‘the student’ across Europe – underpinning, for example, initiatives to increase cross-border educational mobility and the wider development of a European Higher Education Area. It is also significant in relation to exploring the extent to which understandings are shared within a single nation, between different groups of stakeholders.

The paper draws on an analysis of 16 ‘policy texts’ from each of six European countries (England, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain). In each nation, the sample comprised: four recent government policy reports (e.g. white papers and other key strategic documents); four government speeches (e.g. by senior politicians, which focus explicitly on HE students); four business/industry documents (which discuss the relationship between graduate employers and HE); and four union documents (e.g. from national students’ unions and national employees’ unions). The paper argues that significant differences in the dominant construction of students are evident between countries – particularly in relation to the positioning of students as, variously, consumers, political actors, mobile Europeans and ‘emergent workers’. The paper also draws attention to important contestations within individual nations, by stakeholder group, emphasising both the ‘messiness’ of policymaking and the ways in which policies mutate as they migrate into new contexts and settings (Shore and Wright, 2011).