Britain attracts more exchange students than it ever sends abroad. Anne Corbett argues for a more positive approach towards Europe when the country takes the Union presidency in January
The 83,000 students from other European Union member states studying this year at British universities represent a rapid rise on recent years.
These students are entitled to have their tuition fees paid for by the local education authority where they live on the same basis as British students.
In a fashion not totally unlike Margaret Thatcher at Fontainebleau in 1984 shouting "we want our money back", the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education has suggested that it would be no bad thing if a Pounds 1,000 contribution to tuition fees were to lead to fewer students from other EU countries. Far fewer British students take up free tuition offers in European universities.
John Reilly, director of the Socrates-Erasmus Council, United Kingdom, has said that Europe is neither part of the Dearing vision nor analysis, but simply a contextual constraint. It is a recipe for undesirable policy consequences, he says.
The ad hoc way Dearing takes up the problems highlighted by European and international competition emerges in half a dozen references. In only one, its recommendation for integrating universities in their regions, is there a recognition of how EU policy initiatives can stimulate innovation at home.
In most of the references Dearing is trying to solve the problems of what seem, in a competitive economic context, to be British foibles - franchising and the time-honoured university right to award its own degrees. Being stricter about franchising is unlikely to cause any problems.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, professional bodies and respectable opinion in general have long been on the side of a strict code of ethics. But what gives the issue a high political profile is that Germany, Portugal and Spain are incensed about tacky British businesses and may well encourage a citizen to take a case to the European Court of Justice.
Dearing's important recommendation about a national framework for university awards also recognises that Europe will not go away. The committee's recommendation was given added force by the fact that the Dutch equivalent of the British Council in the area, NUFIC, is advising Dutch institutions that, in the light of the decision to upgrade polytechnics to universities, British university undergraduate courses overall ought to be rated at sub-degree level.
Had Dearing recognised explicitly that Europe has become a driver of public policy, both institutionally and economically, its recommendations could have been built into a European strategy. By the same token Britain would stop being simply the "awkward partner" in yet another European wrangle.
Our membership of the EU means obligations and opportunities and these must become part of domestic policy making in higher education as elsewhere. Our core obligations under the Maastricht Treaty derive from the principles of freedom of movement and non-discrimination as between EU citizens. Policy initiatives on research and cohesion also directly impinge on all or most higher education institutions.
The way in which higher education cooperation is actually working should be built into policy-making. Yet the community's own policy for educational cooperation does not even get a mention in what is the most extraordinary omission. This may be because the community's entire annual budget for education, training and youth is limited to what the common agricultural policy gulps down in half a day. It could also be because subsidiarity rules under the terms of Articles 126 and 1 of Maastricht EU subsidiarity rules, leaving the Commission to propose and the community to fund only those activities which add to the quality of what any member state might do on its own, such as the Socrates-Erasmus programme.
The fact is that almost 2,000 of the EU/European Economic Area's 5,000 universities are now involved in networking in educational cooperation on the basis of voluntarily chosen partnerships. There are almost 200 British higher education institutions among them. Activities include the organisation of student and teaching staff mobility; the operation of the European Credit Transfer Scheme, which provides guarantees for students and institutions in partnership schemes; joint curriculum development projects; European modules; and the provision of intensive programmes. There are also hundreds of research partnerships.
The experience of managing this diversity, and the strengths and weaknesses this reveals within British institutions and students, has much to feed into national policy and offers us opportunities to be more effective at a European level.
But if Dearing has failed us on the strategic analysis which relates the economic context and national priorities to the opportunities as well as the obligations that come with our EU membership, others are thinking on these lines. These include the 197 UK universities and colleges involved in the Socrates-Erasmus programme which have been obliged to write a European mission statement if they want the institutional contract which gives them access to community funding.
Some university European officers regard these as simply Euro-poetry. But far more echo Mike Dawnay at Middlesex University as to how such statements have become integral to the institution.
There is a good guide to strategic thinking in a report from the French-led group called ARIES, chaired by Regis Ritz of Bordeaux III. The report was commissioned by DG22, the higher education directorate of the European Commission, and the British end was led by David Richardson of Manchester University. Entitled Complementarity and the Relationship between Community Actions and the Objectives of Higher eeucation iIstitutions in Europe, it is first a useful reference document on the nature of the research commissioned by no fewer than 16 of the commission's directorates. But its essential purpose is to show how a European strategy for teaching and research at higher education institution level can be formulated in a context of autonomy, transborder networks, city-level consortia and new types of contracts with industry for applied research and technology transfer. The underlying principle is vive la difference at institutional and national levels.
However, in the immediate future the mobility question is bound to top the agenda. Ulrich Teichler, of the University of Kassel, who has been in charge of the evaluation of the entire Erasmus education programme over the past seven years, maintains mobility is no longer a marginal phenomenon for any EU country.
Speaking at last year's conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, he suggested that Britain might be paying a heavy price for both the excessively commercial attitude of its institutions and a certain passivity by which it waited for the world to come to it rather than the opposite. This latter attitude is epitomised in the dismal record of the British in mastering foreign languages.
Statistics from Professor Teichler and from the work of Jean Gordon and J. P. Jelledc at the European Institute of Education and Social Policy in Paris, reworked by the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands shows how far the mobility argument has to go.
A paper by L. Goedogebuure, S. de Lange and P. Maassen presented at Ensched in the spring and now being prepared for publication shows that proportionately Britain does not take as many mobile students as Belgium, nor as many temporarily enrolled students as Denmark, Ireland, Belgium or the Netherlands. It leads in importing doctoral students from within the EU. It can be said to fail in not exporting Erasmus students.
Will the Labour government with David Blunkett's team at the Department for Education and Employment and Baroness Blackstone leading on higher education and Europe make a difference? Baroness Blackstone has promised the British will be "positive" on taking the presidency in January. We wait to hear the detail.
Anne Corbett is researching for her doctoral thesis on the Erasmus Programme.