Should UK universities care about the quality of higher education in other European countries? Or should we smile smugly about our own relative success and hope, without actually saying so, that conditions in universities on the Continent go from bad to worse?
It is not exactly a secret that most European systems, including all the big ones, have serious problems. In Italy, the chronic state of universities is one of the few things on which the Left and Right agree. Any German vice-chancellor or senior education official will hold forth on the subject at length. I remember an Anglo-German colloquium a good ten years back. The English all wanted to talk about the wonderful German dual system for vocational training, and the Germans from the Federal Ministry just wanted to discuss their higher education crisis and what they might learn from us.
The modern university was born in Bologna and Paris, and came of age in 19th century Germany. In today's lists of top institutions, only the UK makes a reasonable showing. The Times Higher World University Rankings has 13 European universities in its top 50, eight British, while Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities has nine European universities in its top 50, five from the UK.
In a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform, Richard Lambert, the Confederation of British Industry's director-general, and British Petroleum's Nick Butler make recommendations for European university reform. The UK system, they point out, is the only one that retained some independence in the 20th century, and this has been critical to its relative success. Elsewhere, the privileges and independence of the medieval foundations were stripped away, and full-scale nationalisation was the norm.
Where governments have created or restored institutional autonomy, as in the Netherlands, the system has rapidly become more dynamic. Lambert and Butler argue for greater financial and managerial freedom, but in many countries it is hard to imagine these materialising. I spent last week at a conference held in a north Italian university, and the student posters plastering the main cloisters were all about the forthcoming constitutional referendum, not university governance. The Prodi Government certainly faces many more pressing issues (as do France, Poland and Spain).
So could the European Union as a whole do anything to help? Although education is not a European Commission function, the EU did facilitate the Bologna agreements on degree restructuring. However, commission officials now talk enthusiastically about the need to standardise not just structures but curriculum. This suggests a terrifying lack of understanding of how good universities develop, and of the relationship between research and teaching.
The European Court of Justice has also been standardising the rights of citizens in ways that restrict, rather than increase, universities' freedom to manoeuvre. The court insists that all EU states treat all EU-domiciled students the same, including their access to fees, loans and grants, and entry prerequisites. This has major cost implications for the UK, which is educating 100,000 students from other EU countries, while few of ours go abroad. It is a political issue in Austria, whose medical schools are being swamped by German students, few of whom will stay in Austria. It is also an issue in Belgium, where French students are squeezing Belgians out of oversubscribed veterinary faculties.
So the EU seems an unlikely saviour of European higher education, but there is one way in which it might provide a catalyst for reform. Lambert and Butler describe how, since 1996, the Nordic countries have arranged for money to follow students; so if, say, 500 Swedish students study in Denmark and 300 Danish ones in Sweden, the money that Sweden would have spent on its students goes to Denmark, and vice versa - at the home countries'
spending levels. An EU-wide scheme of this sort is surely both desirable and easily implemented.
If the money went directly to recipient universities, it would increase financial autonomy immediately without requiring system-wide reforms. It would provide a reward for and incentive to quality far beyond anything offered by Erasmus short-term exchanges. And it would help create something more like a genuine European system than has existed since the Middle Ages.
Which brings me back to whether we want more competition. Perhaps not, but we should. The university system has thrived where competition was rife, whether it was Oxford scholars decamping to Cambridge or Stanford pitting itself against Harvard. "The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life," observed economist John Hicks, but it was not something he wanted to encourage.
Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.