Social dimension of higher education completely omitted from new laws

Zagreb, 29.11.2010.

The Draft Laws on Universities and Higher Education do not mention equal opportunities or the wider social role of higher education

The Institute for the Development of Education (IDE) expresses deep concern that the Draft Law on Universities and the Draft Law on Higher Education do not mention the principles of equal opportunities or the social dimension of higher education. By adopting such laws, Croatia would be ignoring the practice of many EU countries higher education laws emphasize the principle of ensuring equality in access and completion of studies for vulnerable groups (such as persons of lower socio-economic status, persons with disabilities, minorities, etc.). Croatia would also be missing the opportunity to follow the recommendations of the Bologna Process, the social dimension being first on its list of priorities until the year 2020.

IDE sees this omission as symptomatic of the unsatisfactory way in which the new legislation was drafted and discussed on the part of the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports (MSES). Thorough consultations were lacking while drafting the laws and the public debate on the final draft laws (which MSES limited to only 14 working days) was unacceptably short. IDE believes that sending the existing draft laws to parliament will prevent Croatia from having a high-quality, democratic and socially responsive legal framework for higher education.

The social dimension of higher education means that higher education institutions must play an role in reducing social inequality by encouraging wider participation of students from vulnerable social groups and by eliminating the barriers to accessing and completing studies.

The Draft Law on Higher Education, even in its fundamental principles and objectives does not mention that higher education should have a social dimension. The Draft Law emphasizes the principle of "respect and promotion of human rights," which is important, but insufficient if we are to specifically promote equal opportunities for vulnerable groups in higher education. The Law on Universities fails to mention the social dimension.

Examples from many EU countries show that including the principle of equal opportunities and/or the social dimension into higher education laws is standard practice. The French Education Act emphasizes the role of higher education in reducing the "social and cultural inequalities", while the Austrian Law on Universities mentions gender equality, equal opportunities and special attention to the needs of persons with disabilities as some of its fundamental principles. Spain particularly stands out as an example of good practice in its Education Act, which has a separate sub-section devoted to "equity in education." Even transition countries take these principles into account: the Hungarian Law on Higher Education mentions as one of the fundamental principles that of "widening opportunities to access higher education”, and equal opportunities within the higher education system.

The Institute for the Development of Education believes that omitting these principles from the legal framework on higher education carries the risk that the higher education system will not adequately address inequities in higher education and promote equal opportunities. This is particularly problematic with regard to the new system of higher education funding and student support. The Draft Law provides for charging registration fees on the one hand and a system of student support on the other, but without mentioning the social dimension of these systems. On the contrary, it can be interpreted from the Draft Law that the main criterion for support is academic excellence, while the criterion of need is completely omitted.

Finally, the Institute for the Development of Education firmly believes that legislation on higher education must provide mechanisms that prevent any form of discrimination. In this sense, the Institute considers it unacceptable that the new legislative proposals eliminated the anti-discrimination provision contained in the current law for Science and Higher Education (Article 77), which ensures equal access to higher education “regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, social status, disability, sexual orientation and age”.

Since far-reaching reforms of higher education are at stake, the Institute for the Development of Education believes that the future legal framework should base themselves on the principles of equal opportunity and the social dimension as fundamental values of the higher education system. It is also necessary to ensure that the planned reforms of higher education funding and student support are coordinated according to the same principles.

Sources: 

Information about the laws on higher education in Europe: UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning, National Educational Legislations. http://planipolis.iiep.unesco.org/format_liste1_en.php

More information on the social dimension of higher education in the article by V. Kovač and T. Farnell, "Removing inequities in higher education: towards a 'widening participation' policy in Croatia" (2010). http://www.iro.hr/userdocs/File/Farnell-Kovac.pdf