Friday, July 15, 2011

European Union Bologna Conference in Berlin

I recently attended the 2011 European Union Bologna Conference meeting in Berlin, Germany. I went primarily to stay abreast of what others are doing in student affairs, obviously to make sure that Qatar Foundation is staying with, or ahead, of the curve in international student affairs initiatives. The Bologna process has been underway for several years with a focus on increasing access, mobility, and quality of student experience throughout EU institutions. The theme of the conference, "The Social Dimension - Stocktaking and Future Perspectives of Student Affairs & Services in Europe" was intended to focus participants' attention on the opportunities to make European higher education more attractive not only for Europeans but for what they hope will be an increasing number of international students from throughout the world. (The conference host from the Deutsches Studentenwerk is pictured standing in the picture of our dinner cruise on the River Spree in Berlin on the last night of the conference.)

What was fascinating is that the breadth of representatives at the conference not only included Europeans but also representatives from Japan, Thailand, China, Singapore, Australia, Canada, me from Qatar, and the U.S.A. The planners determined to broaden the participants in order for the EU institutions to determine if they were pursuing student affairs initiatives in ways similar or different from other regions of the world. What unfolded was a conversation primarily focused on student services such as lodging, food, and the provision of financial assistance. There were very few references to what I would characterize as truly contemporary student affairs, development or engagement until the last day. The Asian and Australian representatives pictured in the panel to the right were far more attuned to "student affairs" ideas than the Europeans, a fascinating departure from what I assumed.

In reflecting on how the Asian and Australian representatives were more responsive to student affairs ideas, there could be several possibilities. The Europeans have had a longer history and therefore more established traditions in higher education that would be difficult to change. The Europeans also have a history of neglecting the "holistic" development of students and, indeed, the Germanic influence on higher education in the late 19th century asserted almost exclusive interest in the cognitive or intellectual aspects of learning. The Asians, on the other hand, referenced the importance of Confucianism in their beliefs in the importance of addressing students in a more integrated and complete way. As the global higher education community becomes more permeable and students make more choices they see as in their best interest, it will be interesting to see what will happen with the focus on student experience and engagement.

I have many things to research further and many reflections to undertake to sort out the impressions I took away from the EU conference. It was a great opportunity to see how others view student affairs, even those who believe they are doing the work of student affairs. The challenge I faced was realizing that, while the "service" dimensions of working with students has been embraced with relative comfort, there was little true understanding of the philosophical purposes and commitments that were advocated in the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to raise this point during the last open discussion period and I will follow up with select attendees to explore if greater interest in deeper student affairs might be cultivated. Time will tell but attending the conference was a terrific way to continue to assess the varying views of student affairs around the world.