The social dimension as a power discourse of governance in European Area of Higher Education

Issue 27

“The social dimension as a power discourse of governance in European Area of Higher Education”

Antigone Sarakinioti

Pages 98 – 119


The present study traces the policy discourse of social dimension articulated in the course of the Bologna Process. The aim is to capture and interpret the emerging meaning and practices promoting social dimension as a core element of higher education governance across Europe today. To this end, discourse analysis has been conducted on the Ministerial Communiqués of the Bologna Process (2001-2020). Findings revealed
four phases of transformation in the policy discourse on social dimension. In the first phase (2001- 2005), the basic ideas on what constitutes “social dimension” in higher education were formulated. In the second phase (2007-2010), the interest for the enhancement of the social dimension in higher education is maximized. The Ministerial declarations articulate a coherent discursive framework on social dimension regarding the objectives and the measures that should be undertaken across higher education systems for promoting their social aspects. In the third phase (2012-2018), findings show that the discourse on social dimension becomes more powerful in the policy agenda of the European Higher Education Area. In the communiqué of 2012, the emphasis is on the systematic identification of measures and interventions regarded as desirable reforms and practices for the promotion of the social dimension in higher education systems. Developing support structures and promoting student-centered learning approaches at the university with the aim to enhance quality of studies as well as to promote the employability of graduates are key elements in this Communiqué. From 2015 onwards, significant developments took place regarding the governing processes pressing for broad and coherent dissemination of the social dimension within higher education. In the Communiqués of 2015 and 2018, ministers identify major needs for the dissemination and coherent form of implementation of social dimension in the national higher education systems. Systematic monitoring of countries’ performance and the provision of targeted support to member states experiencing difficulties through the exchange of good practice are at the heart of what has been agreed. The 2018 communiqué, in addition, acknowledges the need for more systematic guidance to Member States on how to define and implement a social dimension policy, a task assigned to the Advisory Group 1 on Social Dimension. The paper argues that this governmental shift in the policy agenda of the Bologna process on social dimension gave a strong impetus to the development of a common framework of principles and standards in 2020 that would facilitate the member states and the institutions of European Higher Education Area to meet the challenges of adopting a coherent social dimension policy. The Communiqué of 2020, which falls in the fourth phase of the analysis, set a milestone for social dimension in European Higher Education. Ministers approved the document “Principles and Guidelines to strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA”, that had been prepared by the BFUG Advisory Group 1 on Social Dimension. At the level of governance, this document sets out a common framework of objectives, measures and action for stakeholders (states, public bodies, institutions, academics, students) for the widespread implementation of the social dimension across European higher education in the new decade. The definition of “social dimension” in this document reflects the idea that it should operate as a general regulatory principle of the complex field of higher education with the objective to enhance and promote the “social” in European universities. In particular, the principles and the guidelines, link social dimension with a range of specific interventions and transformations across the whole spectrum of higher education (legislation, administration, academic practices, financial resources, infrastructure and support services, data collection systems, consultation with public authorities and others). As the paper argues, this discursive development of social dimension signals a governmental shift towards the standardization of the social role of the university.

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