Civil Society Organisations Play Key Role in Promoting Social Inclusion

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The European Commission supports civil society organisations that serve the political priorities of the EU, among other things to promote inclusive education for all. This is why the action «Civil Society Cooperation in the Field of Education and Training» is offering structural support to European non-governmental organisations and EU-wide networks in the form of so-called operating grants. One of the organisations currently receiving funding is the European Students’ Union (ESU).

What does the European Commission hope to achieve with the cooperation?

Civil society organisations have extensive networks at European and national level and are in close contact with various target groups. Through them, EU citizens can be reached, for example, to raise awareness about the European Education Area and EU policies in the field of education and training.

Cooperation between the relevant stakeholders and the European Commission also promotes policy transfer, learning and support of the EU’s objectives and priorities, including inclusion and diversity as one of the Erasmus+ programme’s four main priorities. This means civil society organisations act not only as multipliers according to the top-down approach, but they also make a bottom-up contribution to policy development.

What is funded?

In the October 2021 call for proposals Civil Society Cooperation in the Field of Education and Training, the responsible European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) identified four subjects and priorities which are to be effectively promoted by «civil society organisations active in the field of education and training through innovative, targeted and creative strategies and activities»: inclusive education for all; the acquisition of a wide set of (key) competences by all citizens; support for teachers, staff and leaders of education and training institutions; and excellence and innovation. 

Promoting inclusive education includes, among other things: 

  • measures to integrate disadvantaged learners (including migrants) and support learners according to their needs;
  • enhancing cooperation with families, social services, civil society, social partners and the non-formal learning sector;
  • supporting teachers, trainers, educators and leaders of educational institutions in dealing with diversity and promoting a fair and unbiased learning environment;
  • improving educational governance, funding and monitoring mechanisms to remove barriers that potentially lead to educational inequalities.

What forms of support are available?

Unlike the project funding under the other actions of Key Action 3: Support to policy development and cooperation – European policy experimentation in higher education and Social inclusion through education, training and youth – the «Civil Society Cooperation» awards grants to the operating budget of an organisation. This means general financial support is offered to organisations whose statutory activities serve the strategic objectives of EU policies; in other words, it does not support a specific project. 

Kathrin Herres
EU04 – Policy Support

Funding terms and conditions

Who can take part? 
European non-government organisations and EU-wide networks active in the field of education and training

Duration of funding
12 months

Type of financial support
Operating grant

Funding amount
€80,000 to 200,000 (depending on call)

Applications are submitted to the EACEA

«The key concept is ‹equity›»

A discussion on the tasks and goals of the European Students’ Union

To what extent are inclusion and diversity embedded in your work programme and activities?

Matteo Vespa: Inclusive higher education is deeply embedded in the work of the European Students’ Union. ESU has been the main promoter of the Social Dimension in Higher Education, defined in the Paris Communiqué of the European Higher Education Area Ministerial Conference of 2019 as the «commitment that the student body entering and graduating from European higher education institutions should reflect the diversity of Europe’s populations» by «improv[ing] access and completion by under-represented and vulnerable groups.» 

ESU’s work on the issue is embodied by several lines of action. ESU is promoting a Student Rights’ Charter as the minimum set of criteria to be enjoyed by all students in Europe. We are working extensively on mental health support, both in terms of policy advocacy and through research. Furthermore, ESU has a Gender Mainstreaming Strategy and a Human Rights and Solidarity Strategy that define ESU’s internal and external activities in the two fields.

How can the higher education sector be made more inclusive? How does or can ESU help achieve this goal?

Matteo Vespa: The first element is that education should be free. This is the ultimate goal recognised by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This means free of direct costs (tuition fees), but also indirect ones which can be as effective at limiting access to education as tuition fees: housing, transport, cost of living, cost of study materials – for all this, scholarships are fundamental. 

But this might not be enough. Students come from different backgrounds and have different starting points, and this difference needs to be acknowledged and addressed so that everyone has the same opportunity to develop. The key concept is «equity». We should not be afraid to promote affirmative actions, and we need to assess whether and how our education systems as a whole tend to reproduce social barriers. 

ESU’s role in this is multifaceted. At the global level, through its world organisation Global Student Forum, it works to enshrine investment in free education and affirmative actions in various international documents that provide a reference for the global discussion on education. At the European level, it is working to establish a reference framework on social dimension that will push governments to invest in opening up education (within the Bologna Process, the European Union, the Council of Europe). At the national and local level, through its member unions, it is campaigning for investments, legislation and policies that will allow disadvantaged groups to access and complete higher education. Finally, ESU can lead by example, by assessing internally how to foster the empowerment of the more disadvantaged students within its structures. That is why we are working on an equity plan, with an intersectional perspective including but not limited to dimensions of inclusion, gender equality, accessibility, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and xenophobia.

Matteo Vespa is President of the ESU, Nuria Portero Projects and Research Officer.

Founded in 1982 under the name Western European Students Information Bureau, the European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organisation of 45 national student unions in 40 countries with a total of 20 million members. Its aim is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at European level in all relevant bodies and stakeholder groups. The ESU is headquartered in Brussels. 

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Your organisation is also participating in the project «Social Meaning Impact Through LLL Universities in Europe» (SMILE) under the funding line «Social Inclusion Through Education, Training and Youth». What needs does the project address, what are its objectives and what results have already been achieved?

Nuria Portero: The SMILE project under KA3 supports policy reform on social inclusion and common values, specifically policies that trigger reform in the field of education and training. It aims to disseminate good practices on inclusive learning initiated in particular at the local level. More specifically, its objective is to promote inclusive education and training, and foster the education of disadvantaged learners (target audience), for example by helping educational staff address diversity and reinforcing diversity among educational staff. 

This project deals with three main disadvantaged groups. These are, firstly, learners with migrant backgrounds. This pillar covers the problem of lower access, participation and attainment among first or second generation immigrants in higher education, and it addresses the need to train university staff (both academic and non-academic) in relation to this dimension. Secondly, it looks at women leadership in tertiary education. This pillar covers the need to foster equal access to leadership positions by raising awareness of the obstacles that currently prevent women in tertiary education from holding top positions and by making sure these barriers are identified and removed. It addresses the need to train university staff (both academic and non-academic) in relation to this dimension. And thirdly, it looks at learners with low socio-economic status. This pillar covers the need to address the problem of lower access, participation and attainment among learners with a lower socio-economic status. It addresses the need to train university staff (both academic and non-academic) in relation to this dimension. ESU’s direct role in the project lies in the Working Package 4 on Policy Recommendations and it supports Working Package 8 on the exploitation of SMILE tools and dissemination. 

ESU has been advocating an inclusive learning environment for all and the full inclusion of disadvantaged groups within higher education for a long time now. In the last three years, ESU has been partners in more than ten European co-funded projects under Erasmus+ (KA2 and KA3) and Horizon 2020. The student’s perspective has been represented and plays an active role in projects that focus on different key areas of higher education: sustainability, human rights, student participation, extra-curricular activities, and quality assurance. Therefore, ESU will ensure the sustainability of the project results not only by advocating at the European and National policy level, through our National Students’ Unions, but also by upholding its principles and values in future projects.