Tony Blair might be calling for closer ties with Europe, but if British universities want to benefit from EU funding, they'd do well to negotiate from the inside, reports Tony Tysome
The lead-up to the European summit in Nice has seen a hive of activity by new Labour in another attempt to persuade the British public out of its antipathy to continental bureaucracy. The latest Labour drive began with prime minister Tony Blair's annual foreign-policy speech at the end of October in which he said that, in order to stand up for Britain, we have to be actively and constructively involved in Europe all the time.
"We have to negotiate toughly and get our way, not stand aside and let other European countries make the decisions that matter to us," he said.
How much does Blair's message apply to British higher education?
Our universities' interest in Europe has been suffering a decline, partly because of a belief that European funding is harder to obtain and that European grants carry less prestige than national ones. But as vice-chancellors continue to warn about dangerously tight budgets, even relatively small sources of income are beginning to matter a great deal. Being constructively involved in Europe has therefore become a matter of carefully weighing up the effort required against the rewards. For many universities,2 to 3 per cent of annual income originates from Europe; for others the figure is as much as 10 per cent.
It is not always just a matter of money. The Socrates/Erasmus programme, supporting the exchange of students and staff between European Union institutions, is a classic example. Britain is a significant net loser under the programme, because it has to cover the costs of importing twice as many students as it exports. But, according to John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates/Erasmus Council, whether these costs are justified "depends on what is in the equation".
He says that at departmental level the sums are small and the programme is "invaluable" for many reasons. "Students here get a lot of value from the incoming students, who are generally of high quality and bring an international dimension."
Most UK universities' European officers accept that the "gravy-train" days are over for other much larger sources of funding from Brussels, for research, regeneration and development.
Part of the reason is that, because of alleged and actual cases of fraud in the past, there has been a clampdown on the accounting processes for matched funding. Another key factor is the way the money is allocated. In the case of Europe's multibillion pound Framework research programme, funding is taken out of the UK's science budget. Britain's universities then bid for the money from Brussels. Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Southampton University and president of Universities UK, says Framework has earned a reputation for sometimes putting European collaboration before research excellence.
"We find that the British research councils have consistently been turning down alpha-rated projects because they do not have enough money, yet one wonders whether many Framework projects have been of such high quality. The British government has tried to insist that this money was handed out purely on scientific merit, but everyone knows you stand a better chance of getting the funding if you include a Greek or Portuguese partner," Newby says.
"The truth is, science has been used as a vehicle for European integration. The funding has been used to improve the capacity of some countries' science bases and to engineer a degree of collaboration wider than is warranted strictly on scientific grounds."
British universities have also lost out on the European Social Fund. It has been estimated that Pounds 45 million of this funding went to higher education last year, distributed by the Department for Education on the basis of regional needs. This strategy has proved detrimental to universities: in the past two years, the number of British universities receiving ESF funding has dropped from 70 to 45.
Martin McCauley, director of ESF Services, based at Liverpool John Moores University, says: "In general when you undertake labour-market analysis it tends to concentrate on the lower skills levels. In some regions, higher level needs do show up, but in others it just does not feature at all."
While British universities' poor showing under ESF funding might be resolvable at home, more effective lobbying and networking in Brussels is generally needed to improve British higher education's share of the Euro cake. So far we have not done well on this front. According to John McKenzie, director of international affairs at the London Institute, this is partly due to the government's representatives in Brussels failing to take Blair's advice, and "negotiate toughly". He says MEPs in some countries have been more active in pushing their needs than British members.
Britain's influence over higher education in Europe might grow as a result of taking the lead in pan-European agreements affecting qualifications and courses, as laid out in the Bologna Declaration. Vice-chancellors might also be able to form a more effective lobby, through the merger of their two representative bodies in Europe, the EU Rectors Conference and the Council of European Rectors.
But there is nothing to stop individual higher education representatives doing more to get their voice heard. Martin Hamilton, European officer at Leeds University, says that while it is hard to lobby Brussels, it is relatively easy to influence it from within.
He adds that many academics do not understand how decisions are made in Europe, but this is changing as more get involved. "You can get a feel for how things work on the inside that way," he says.
Newby says the most important lesson is that who you know counts for more in Brussels than any of the formal processes that have such a formidable reputation. In this sense, Blair's advice about persistent effort and contact may be right.
"They are always so pleased to see you if you actually make the effort to go there," Newby says. "Doors will open for you much more easily in Brussels than they will in Westminster."