A faraway continent of which we know nothing?

August 8, 1997

I CONFESS that I have not read the whole Dearing report. I have a niggling doubt and a faint hope that I may be wrong in asserting that the 1,700 pages ignore a key aspect of higher education in a (European!) learning society which is preparing for the next century.

I have - who has not? - read the summary; made assiduous use of the index; rushed with enthusiasm to Report 11 ("The Development of a Framework of Qualifications: Relationships with Continental Europe"). No hint can I discover there of the impact and significance of our relationship with Europe for teaching, learning and research. Member states of the European Union are used almost exclusively for comparative purposes. The key word in relation to other countries is "competitor". Where is the recognition that nearly 200 UK higher education institutions have established active, effective, collaborative partnerships with 1,400 EU/EEA universities, granting academic recognition and often joint degrees? Neither is it acknowledged that a substantial number of UK universities are working on joint European research projects with partners throughout the EU. Discussion of the regional dimension ignores the fact that a number of UK institutions now conceive of their regional role in Euro-regional terms and are establishing significant transfrontier networks.

Failure to recognise the potential of the cooperative European dimension is, of course, not unusual. The success of UK universities in virtually every European programme might even stem from the sense of adversity. However, the Dearing tuition fee proposals could have a potentially blighting impact for one critical aspect of European cooperation - student mobility.

Currently EU students who enrol on a UK first degree are entitled to have their tuition fees paid via the relevant local education authority. They count as home students and there are substantial numbers of them. It is argued that this represents an unfair burden on the UK because there is no reciprocal outflow of UK students.

The Dearing proposals may rectify that by stemming the incoming numbers. On the other hand, the new fee, rather like the imposition of the overseas tuition fee, may not have an adverse effect on EU recruitment. It may even encourage active marketing. Perhaps this is an area in which the market should dictate the outcome. It may indeed encourage the UK to support the idea of portability of grants and loans in the future.

More disturbingly, there is no acknowledgement that the new tuition fee and maintenance regime may prove disastrous for UK "European degrees" in general.

There is an explicit reference to the four-year Scottish degree and the need to safeguard it but language degrees, European studies and the array of four-year degree programmes involving a year in a European partner institutions have been ignored. The terms of reference explicitly asked the committee to take account of a context in which "links between higher education in the UK and elsewhere in the world are growing, as the international mobility of staff and students increases" (Annex A to Terms of Reference). Why does the report not recognise the critical importance of European mobility for the UK and seek, if not to promote it, at least to protect it?

The present student maintenance system provides a supplement for study abroad. There has been no suggestion that special loan terms should replicate this arrangement or that students should be encouraged to undertake such study. Without some such action, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in three years the number of UK students willing and able to undertake a period of study in another member state will have dwindled, while young people in partner member states will continue to seek the experience.

What impact will this have on the UK role in Europe? How will it enhance the opportunities for young people if they find that, in the European environment in which they will spend their working life, they are increasingly handicapped by linguistic incompetence and lack of experience of living and working in another European country?

John Reilly is director of the UK Socrates Erasmus Council.

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