An opportunity that's full of eastern promise

November 1, 2002

Britain is in pole position to capitalise on EU enlargement, but is it ready? asks George Blazyca.

A contestant in Big Brother admitted that he had never heard of Czechoslovakia. Poor Czechoslovakia, still, as in 1938, "a small faraway country about which we know little" - at least in the Big Brother house in 2002. But outside reality TV, things are not so bad.

Central and east European studies has a long tradition, even if its fortunes have shifted. Its popularity has been linked to international developments - steady in the cold war, greater after communism's collapse in 1989 and diminished in the later 1990s. Now, after the Brussels summit, the European Union is about to embrace, for the first time, the post-communist societies of the "other Europe". As it does so, its centre of gravity will slowly shift eastwards.

British higher education, with its still-solid base in central and east European studies, could become a gateway to central Europe, opening opportunities to new generations of students.

The subject's high point followed Sir William Hayter's 1961 review and proposal to establish five centres of excellence - Birmingham, Glasgow, Oxford, Swansea and London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. The Hayter centres performed well, but soon after the events of 1989 it became apparent that the subject's academic base was greatly depreciated. The most recent report into the subject in 1995 called for new investment and succeeded in winning 33 "new blood" lectureships. That report noted that in light of dramatically changed international circumstances, the "patchy" provision in some of the region's languages was a serious problem. It recommended a new "triangulated" approach combining languages, traditional discipline (social science, management, humanities) and in-depth area knowledge.

When the Higher Education Funding Council for England awarded its lectureships with strings (universities to guarantee posts beyond a three-year subsidy), many universities, under immense financial pressures, found the offer resistible. The subject, however, continued to evolve and a survey carried out for the Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Subject Centre illuminated some significant features. The "feel" in the subject community is at the same time less and more encouraging. Less encouraging because most dedicated degree programmes recruit very few students and some have folded entirely. More encouraging because the area still commands substantial interest. There is evidence of greater interest in triangulation supported by modularisation. Academics responded to the collapse of communism and the end of Soviet studies by offering area studies specialisms to mainstream social sciences degrees, to undergraduate business studies, MBA and other programmes. If modularisation means that more students can access units with a focus on the discipline, it must be acknowledged that the broad aims of the Hefce subject report have not in general been achieved. Waning student interest in mainstream European languages also pulls down Slavonic languages where institutional capacity is limited. Instead of triangulation, a bi-polar provision resting on discipline and area is more common.

Some change has occurred across the institutional landscape. SSEES/University College London, aided by its London location, remains the leading centre, but the field has opened up. Some institutions have dipped in and out, depending on staff, their interests and institutional early retirement schemes. Adventurous course restructuring in post-communist Europe, especially in business studies, with support from European Commission programmes, has drawn many new universities (Northumbria, Paisley, Teesside and others) into developmental partnerships with institutions active in the discipline, in arrangements unimaginable before 1989. Dedicated taught masters' provision has thinned in recent years. The trend has been towards more general MA European studies-type courses, offering specialist modules.

The discipline is alive and reasonably well although there are few dedicated programmes and they remain mainly in the Hayter centres. Most courses have become modularised at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Triangulation, meanwhile, has rarely emerged and probably requires a degree of central steer from the funding councils that remains unfashionable. Regional coordination could be greater - but who will lead it? There is a sense of untapped potential in all of this. But whether we are as prepared as we should be as the process of enlargement finally gets under way remains doubtful.

George Blazyca is professor of European economic studies at the Centre for Contemporary European Studies, Paisley Business School. More at: in January.

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