A continental shift that has some distance to go

October 18, 2002

Europe has done much to encourage cross-border study, but it must do more to stop talent migrating to the US, says Nicole de Fontaines

The millionth student to travel across Europe during the 15 years of the Erasmus programme will be among the 120,000 young people criss-crossing the continent over the next few months.

The scheme has established itself as a thriving mechanism to encourage a degree of undergraduate mobility between 1,800 universities across 30 countries.

Meanwhile, in business education, Europe's universities are fighting on an international front to employ the best faculty and to attract the best students. Any highly reputed institution is obliged to recruit from as many nationalities as possible if it is to maintain its position. The costs are high and the competition is fierce. Now the experience of business education at masters level and executive programmes is to be extended to general business education and ultimately to all academic fields.

As the Bologna process towards a European higher education area encourages the adoption by most European countries of the bachelors and masters structure for higher education, international mobility of students will increase beyond the levels that were possible when most of continental Europe followed a four to five-year degree programme leading directly to a masters.

The resulting international competition for the best faculty and students will be a motivating factor for increased quality. Students will benefit from more flexible study paths, particularly as they will involve an international dimension. At last, the students of the 21st century will have the chance to follow those medieval students who knew no borders and travelled from one university to another across Europe.

But it will not be all good news if competition between unequal parties leads to a monopoly situation and if standardisation prevails on diversity. Like it or not, we must face reality: European higher education is neither competitive nor attractive enough in comparison with universities in the US. It will be bad enough if Europe's academic institutions fail to attract enough high-quality scholars from overseas. But the next stage could be worse. If such scholars feel that the academic programmes available in Europe are insufficiently international, or lack prestige, the best European students will join the migration to other continents.

The future of our continent at the forefront of knowledge generation and transmission would be at stake. Our countries, our industry, our technological, scientific or medical centres would lose their competitive edge and become impoverished satellites of more successful powers.

I share the opinion of the European Commission that this is not happening - yet. There are many excellent centres of expertise in pure or applied science in Europe. The average quality of education and research is between good and excellent. But the risk is there, and we have to take it seriously.

The European Commission has committed a planned €200 million (£1 million) towards implementing Erasmus World. Running from 2004 to 2008, the programme aims to enhance the attractiveness of European higher education to students not only from Europe but from other parts of the world. It seeks to remedy the lack of a European identity for higher education by supporting the development of a European higher education profile, by encouraging the development of joint European masters courses and by offering scholarships to the best and brightest overseas students.

International students expect a genuine "European" programme when considering Europe as a place for their study. To reflect this expectation, European ministers of education have called for the development of joint degrees with a strong European identity.

Next week, education commissioner Viviane Reding will launch the masters in international management offered by the Community of European Management Schools, an alliance of 17 leading universities including the London School of Economics, Esade in Spain, Erasmus Universiteit in the Netherlands, and 50 international companies. Ms Reding sees the degree as reflecting Europe's cultural diversity while creating a bridge between the academic and corporate worlds.

The commission is adopting a pragmatic approach to ensure that Europe is a clear competitor with the best that universities in the US can offer students from other continents. It is responding effectively to the challenges of globalisation in higher education. It is now up to Europe's universities to support the initiative.

Nicole de Fontaines is executive director of CEMS.

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