Learning about the Social Dimension: What are the goals of Peer Learning processes?

The PL4SD report on the social dimension of Higher Education in Lithuania. How will that help promote policies dealing with the Social Dimension?

Context

Since the BFUG decided in Leuven that we need to measure the Social Dimension, we were waiting for someone outside of the UK to make a proposal how we can do that. There are several reasons why it takes so long: First of all, the matter is complex and as of now, undefined. Second of all, although most Bologna countries have no data about the Social Dimension, they already know that they will not look too good. All data we have so far unravels the Higher Education system as a system where performance obviously is depending on family background, and disadvantages in family background amount to sever disadvantages in HE in cost of studying, choice, performance, support, career chances etc. Which we fortunately consider nowadays not as a lack of cognitive skills in the less-than-well-off students. But rather as a lack of quality in education: In order to develop all potential, a education system needs to be able to level out social inequalities.

The objective of the project “Peer Learning 4 the Social Dimension” (PL4SD) is “to address this need for “peer learning” and to provide policy-makers and practitioners with resources to develop effective measures for improving the social dimension of the European Higher Education Area.” (quoted from the website, http://www.pl4sd.eu/).

As part of the EU funded PL4SD project, a group of experts visited Lithuania en drafted a feedback report on the situation concerning the social dimension for higher education through interviewing different stakeholders.

What’s up with the social dimension?

The social dimension, a relatively new element in the overall Bologna Process, introduced in 2001 (Prague communique) under impulse of – among others – the European Students Union, has been a difficult one to deal with for policy makers for several reasons. The social dimension of higher education is a vague concept, highly influenced by the social structure, economic situation, historical evolution… of the different participating countries within the European Higher Education Area. Unlike structural reforms or internationalisation measures, the comparability of the current situation and the measuring of improvement made by individual governments is much harder. Finally, it’s a hard nut to crack simply because most countries are doing poorly in this field which can in general be described as “the ambition of governments to make the composition of the student body in higher education representative of the surrounding society as a whole.” – and they have tradition, HE culture, social power and many other kinds of reasons on their side when it comes to better not changing anything, or at least not too much.

After some first hesitant and vaguely described steps to identify some goals in this field, the ministers of education of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) decided in the Bucharest Communiqué (2012) to propose a working method for improvement in this field: “peer learning”. Everybody understood this term but it was still vague enough to be agreed upon by all countries. In order to implement this goals, the Commission funded the project proposal handed in by a consortium of IHS, IDE, DZHW, and ESU under the title “Peer Learning 4 the Social Dimension (PL4SD).” This project has two main focus points: creating a database (www.pl4sd.eu) with good practices concerning the participation of currently underrepresented groups in Higher Education and doing a set of site visits to advise countries on the creation of national action plans.

The ExpandO Experience

But already in 2012, Ghent university headed a project funded in the LLLP programme dedicated to a similar idea: We wanted to develop a method of peer learning fitted for the issue of the Social Dimension. Our central conclusions:

  • The Social Dimension is not a structural, but a cultural aspect of Higher Education. Which means that transfer of knowledge will help only so much; it is rather a process of learning about how different others are than learning about how to do it better. This is because most measures will only work in the given cultural framework of tradition, attitudes and mind-sets, and will not work in a different cultural setting.
  • Thus, Peer learning needs a moderator which enables the participants to learn about their own context and for their own context.
  • Thus, Peer learning needs to be an interactive process in all stages: Both sides need to learn, the presenter as well as the audience, the reviewer as well as the reviewee.

The right conclusions

On the second element, the national action plans, the project published its first report recently. A group of experts visited Lithuania and came to a set of conclusions and recommendations. (Lithuania was also one of the countries that the ExpandO-Project looked at.)

Rightfully, they point out some essential short comings in Lithuanian higher education (and by doing so, conclusions can be drawn for many other countries). It is clear to many familiar with the situation in this former Soviet country that first and for all there is a need to critically analyze the definition which is used nationally for identifying underrepresented groups in higher education. Currently, the Lithuanian government focusses primarily on students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students with a disability. This last group is categorized based on the degree of workability. Both the overall scope and the individual definitions used do not match the more complex composition of Lithuanian society. There is a need to thoroughly analyze both the overall society and the student body composition and look at mismatches to define the real categories of underrepresented groups in higher education, and this at different levels (nationally, regionally, institutionally, study field related). All of that is true for the definition of underrepresented groups in most Bologna countries.

Secondly, the report draws the right conclusions concerning the support systems in place: The Lithuanian government predominantly invests in financial support systems for the students. This has had a crucial impact to lower the thresholds to enter higher education and to improve the success rate for certain groups: those for who financial worries are crucial. However this is only a limited group within the broad spectrum of potentially underrepresented groups in higher education. Students with a disability, LGBT’s, gender distribution in certain fields… they need other incentives than financial support for students, and other institutional measures which are currently lacking.

The report tackles the need for an holistic and inter-sectorial approach in order to ensure all access routes towards higher education remain open, again a recommendation valid for many countries in Europe.

The most essential criticism of the report is the one that is valid for most higher education systems (quoted from the report, p. 21): “The review team was struck by the virtual absence from the system of any evidence of an acceptance of the concept of relative merit or relative performance, common in other countries. Social science research, internationally, has demonstrated that inequalities in personal and family circumstances do not offer ‘a level playing field’ for all students, thus in a competitive system the odds are stacked in favour of those with superior resources.” While the reviewing panel noted a shared belief among most of the interviewed stakeholders in the objectivity of the merit based approach in Lithuanian higher education, there are virtually no experiences of how to implement that. And we would like to add: While the concept of relative merit is “common” in other countries in the sense that it is being discussed, it is by no means a clear concept or even undisputed. Not even in countries like the UK, where just recently the Russell group announced that plans of OFFA to force them to achieve higher rates of widening participation students, this was not possible because the applicants were not good enough.

With these valid and well formulated recommendations, one would assume this report can be seen as a crucial step towards the improvement of the social dimension situation in Higher Education. However, I have my doubts.

The method and the impact

Although my respect for the work done by the reviewing panel is big, my belief in the impact is small. There are essential problems which this report does not tackle. This is not because of its recommendations: They may not be innovative – like in many countries the problems in Lithuania are clear to any external observer – but I believe they are the right ones. My problem lies with the chosen method.

Contrary what one might suspect based on the name of the project under which this site visit was executed – “peer learning for the social dimension”, there was no learning nor peer approach involved. This report is just another one in an ever growing pile of reports on this topic on European and national level. The number of reports on the social dimension (as a whole, a part of it, or as part of a bigger analyses), all funded by the EU, are countless. Just to name a few sources:

https://socialdimension-he.eu/home.html

http://www.ean-edu.org

http://www.eurostudent.eu/results/reports

http://www.ehea.info/article-details.aspx?ArticleId=12

http://www.ehea.info/article-details.aspx?ArticleId=244

http://equityideas.eu/

http://ec.europa.eu/education/news/2014/0704-network-call_en.htm

http://www.eucis-lll.eu/eucis-lll/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/EUCIS-LLL-Publication-Social-Dimension.pdf

Many of them use a similar approach, where experts get together, exchange knowledge and examples of good practice, collect data or compare existing information and publish their analysis. And the result is always the same: The experts know more about the social dimension; the report ends up in the drawer of some ministerial office and no fundamental change takes place.

I believe that the ministers of the EHEA themselves offered already a solution to that: Namely by proposing the peer learning approach. Rather than funding yet another site visit by experts, it is time for the EU/EHEA to appoint process facilitators with a clear goal. They need to assist setting up a grand debate on the social dimension of higher education, regionally, nationally or internationally. They don’t need to interview stakeholders, they need to make stakeholders (including the government) interact, nationally and internationally. Because this is what peer learning is all about: “the educational practice in which peers interact with each other to attain a better understanding of successful practices elsewhere and of their comparative positions in order to improve their own policies.” (from the ExpandO-report “We all talk the talk… But how to walk the walk? In search of a methodology for peer learning on the social dimension of the Bologna Process”, 2014, http://expandingopportunities.eu/page/making-peer-learning-access-and-success-work-6).

How little learning is taking place by the process of site visits and experts reports is clear in annex 3 of the Lithuanian report. The government responds to the recommendations by either rebottling them or asking more explanation. If we really want to make progress in the field of the social dimension, both the “peer” and the “learning” of the proposed process needs to be reinforced. Rather than having external experts write another report, we need now practitioners, policymakers and researchers to interact and develop better policies based on shared knowledge. There are already examples for that, e.g. http://www.f-a-c-e.org.uk/ or http://www.include.nu/?page_id=1626 . The most important aspects are:

  • Differentiate between the spheres of practice, policy and research.
  • Use research to improve institutional practice and policy.
  • Combine experts’ experience with quantitative research based evidence.
  • Define institutional as well as policy goals. Base them on facts, derived from research.
  • Moderate the process in order to be able to connect the spheres of practice, policy and research.

Rather than creating ever more data, we should focus on changing reality. And that is what peer learning for the social dimension needs to be about. Having experts with even more knowledge should be only a side effect to organisational and cultural change.

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