Amid the icy relations between British ministers and their most powerful continental partners, today's meeting of research leaders from 45 countries comes at an opportune moment to demonstrate that European collaboration is not only possible but essential. Two days of discussion in Bristol will not undo the damage done in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, but it will be a useful reminder of the extent of mutual interests on this side of the Atlantic. Joint projects often provide the only means for British or continental researchers to compete with their wealthier US counterparts. There will be many at the European University Association meeting who see the establishment of a single research council for the continent as a natural next step. Barely two years after the designation of the European Research Area, this may be premature, but it is an idea whose time will come.
The meeting will be fascinating for the perspective it brings to the continuing debate on the government's higher education plans. The separation of teaching and research, for example, may be a familiar concept in the US. But, despite the larger role played by research institutes, it is far from accepted on the continent. Sir David King may have a hard time convincing this audience that the consequences of increased concentration of research funding are justified.
The higher education white paper did not even nod in the direction of the Bologna process of greater European convergence, but it is hard to square the agreement with the government's proposals for fast-track degrees, as well as teaching-only universities. No government is going to subordinate what it sees as the national interest to a non-binding international agreement, but ministers regarded the Sorbonne declaration as favourable to Britain only four years ago. They would be shortsighted if they ignored it now. When the fog of war clears, British universities will need to be fully engaged in European networks if they are to reap the benefits of larger framework projects and influence the continuing moves towards greater harmonisation.