Student wellbeing is dealing with the issue of reaching optimal studying conditions for all students. Student wellbeing here refers to meting the necessary conditions in order to assure the highest possible student contribution to society as well as the highest possible amount of individual freedom, responsibility and contentment. Student wellbeing therefore is an issue of mutual interest for students and society. Student wellbeing is concerned with all aspects of student life: social and academic conditions as well as cultural aspects. Students form all but a homogeneous group. There is a great variety of needs, interests and personal backgrounds within the student community that is growing with the intensifying role of HEI´s in life long learning. Mobile students, students with children and students with disabilities are openly discernable groups. Groups forming the student community can also be defined e.g. by social, geographical or cultural background. In order to achieve genuine student wellbeing, the interests and specific needs of all different groups have to be taken into account.
Student wellbeing is an issue student unions as well as other relevant actors in the field of higher education have always been dealing with implicitly. The policies and work of student unions are generally concerned with different aspects of reaching optimal studying conditions and the best possible surroundings for successful studies. In this respect, student wellbeing reflects one of the basic elements of the work of student unions, although the interests of students in many issues go beyond the issue of wellbeing which need to be addressed as well. This is in particular the case in the highly relevant issue of equal access to higher education. The student wellbeing approach nevertheless may be used as a method to reach coherency of policies and interaction. Furthermore, it can function as a basis for cooperation of all actors in higher education and society as a whole.
ESIB sees this policy paper a chance to contribute to the discussion on the role and situation of students and student unions taking place in the context of the Bologna Process as well as in many regions across Europe.
Elementary prerequisites for Student Wellbeing
There are some elementary prerequisites for student wellbeing that need to be met in all areas affecting student life. These aspects form part of the academic core values as well as core elements of citizenship as such. Students are grown-up members of society and as such cannot be regarded or treated as children. Students need to have control over their own life, having independence and the freedom to make choices in all areas regarding their academic and private development. Both physical and social security have to be guaranteed in order to ensure freedom and independence. In order to act responsibly, students need to have access to all relevant information and be given responsibility both on a personal and collective level. Relevant participation has to be ensured in all areas that are not at the individual disposal but are directly affecting student life.
The Role of Communities for Student Wellbeing
Different communities that students are a part of, influence and form the role and situation of students. The term „community” here refers to the student community, higher education community, local community and society as such as well as parts of these entities playing a relevant role for student everyday-life. All of these communities can positively or negatively affect the wellbeing of students and must take into account the needs and interests of the different groups of students.
Society as such is first and foremost obliged to offer means and facilities for studying to all willing to study, to guarantee both individual and collective freedom of expression and participation in all areas students concern. Students can contribute to society not only as future academic work force. Due to the specific, tolerant relationship to science and research originating from youth and intellectual mobility, students can be a key force to contribute to the democratic and social development of society. To offer freedom and possibilities of participation is paramount for student wellbeing and wellbeing of the members of society in general.
Students form a relevant part of local communities. Cultural and social integration in local communities with due respect to individual and collective differences are both necessary for the wellbeing of students and the cultural and social enrichment of local communities.
Students are the largest group in the higher education community. It is in the very interest of students to contribute to scientific progress and development that are in many ways taking place throughout Europe. To be regarded and respected as full members of higher education community with all academic rights and duties and adequate facilities is an important prerequisite to student wellbeing and student contributions. Non-discrimination and individual support by the members of the higher education community are necessary in order to secure general wellbeing. Studying is nevertheless not a one-way road. Students treated like consumers can neither contribute to scientific progress nor be able to conscientiously act as academic work force in their later life. The consumer-approach does considerable harm to student wellbeing.
The student community as a diverse body is often the main peer group of students. A tolerant, inclusive and integrative student community is the most central factor contributing to student wellbeing. All individuals must be given the means and freedom to socially and culturally participate in student life, be free to take individual decisions and take part in collective decision-making.
Social, Academic and Cultural Aspects of Student Wellbeing
Social, academic and cultural aspects of studying must be seen as closely interlinked. Social and cultural conditions directly influence the capacity and willingness to study as well as relevant factors for students´ contribution to scientific progress.
Financial independence has to be ensured in order to guarantee the freedom to choose their subject and field of study according to interest and capacity. The latter is also a means for enabling students focus on their studies. Sufficient grants must be available to cover living costs, study-related costs and participation in cultural life. Adequate accommodation serving the needs of the different groups of students (including students with disabilities and students with children) must be ensured in order to guarantee a free choice of the place of studies and good learning and living conditions. Food offered in student cafeterias must be well-balanced, healthy and must meet the needs of different groups of students (eg vegetarians and other students with special diets) in order to avoid malnutrition. Health services must be guaranteed taking in account the general lack of individual work income. Special needs like psychological, social and academic advice in situations with constant relevant changes in the personal environment and plans must be met. Security to get freely choosable, study-related work after completion of studies is a major factor for motivations and concentration on studies. Problems of sexual harassment and discrimination in the social, academic and cultural sphere must be determinately addressed.
Academic aspects must necessarily and obviously be taken into account in order to ensure student wellbeing. Scientific education and work is the central element of student life and the reason behind being a student. Thus the organisation and methods of higher education play a paramount role for student wellbeing.
Wellbeing in the academic area is highly dependent on the quality of education and the relationship between teachers and students. High quality demands methods and content to be on an internationally respected and common level. Quality from the student perspective is closely related with the interdependence and clearly discernable relationship between theory and praxis. Knowledge and research must be questionable, transparent and be seen as relevant for the progress of studies. Quality is also related to academic freedom of students, the development of autonomous critical and analytical thinking, an atmosphere of open discourse, interactive teaching and equal treatment. This includes non-discriminatory, inclusive curricula and teaching methods which take into account the heterogeneity of the student community in respect to needs and interests. Quality is furthermore related to the availability, accessibility and sufficient quantity of modern materials, facilities and further resources. Quality needs to be constantly assured and improved.
Students need to have equal and adequate preparation for higher education in school in order to feel well-equipped and able to participate in academic learning on an equal basis. If this is not assured, there have to be mechanisms to provide these standards in HEI.
The cultural life plays an important role for recreation, development of creativity also in the academic sphere, social cohesion and integration and is therefore equally important for student wellbeing. Access to facilities, means and sufficient individual and collective freedom have to be guaranteed in order to develop wide diversity in student cultural life and offer supportive space for genuine wellbeing.
Student Unions and Actors concerned with Students and Student Wellbeing
Student unions naturally form the point of reference for student interests and wellbeing for non-student actors in student-related issues. Student unions must be prepared to address all issues related to student wellbeing and offer sufficient means and openness to all students to raise issues of their concern. Student unions play an important role in securing an atmosphere of tolerance, non-discrimination and support for all groups of students. Their natural concern is to take care and address the needs of especially discriminated and disadvantaged groups. Student unions must be given the means and facilities to work on and address all issues concerned with student wellbeing and student interests and must be autonomous in their decision on how to work and which issues to address. Students must be given the full right and possibility to participate in the work of student representation and self-government and must not be discriminated against for their activities. It is first and foremost the task of students to assure that democratic and openly accessible structures in student unions exist.
Student wellbeing is an issue concerning all actors dealing with students. In order to reach student wellbeing, a good interaction of these actors as well as an optimal organisation of the communities related to students have to be reached.
Many student unions offer services to students themselves. Students should be autonomous in choosing which services they feel suitable to organise and offer through their collective organs. Independent of their individual role in fulfilling student interests and needs in social, cultural and academic aspects, student unions on the local, national and international level should be seen as the point of reference politically representing students interests in order to guarantee and improve student wellbeing. Student unions in this sense can be seen as the central actor in a round table on student wellbeing, forming the connecting element between all other actors dealing with interests of students. It is therefore necessary that representative, democratically organised, independent and autonomous student unions be represented in all bodies concerned with student life and conditions.
The student wellbeing approach in Europe outlines a new form of dealing with student interests and needs from the very perspective of students. The new element in this approach is more coherent analysis and representation of different aspects of student wellbeing than it is their content.
Closer analysis of communities that students are a part of and the concerted interaction of the relevant actors are necessary in order to guarantee student wellbeing. In this process, student unions must be treated and respected as the central representative organisations dealing with wellbeing issues.