Britain out on the hoof

June 14, 1996

John Major's game of dare over the beef embargo could deny Britain a place in a free market in education.

At the beginning of May, just before John Major's embargo on all European legislation, the European Union's education ministers met to discuss international education issues.

Gillian Shephard was not present but in her absence the member states took the first, long-awaited steps towards establishing a European-wide system for the recognition of academic qualifications. This was in response to a European Commission communication on "recognition of qualifications for academic and professional purposes" presented last year and debated in the European Parliament just before Christmas.

It has always been something of an anomaly to the "free market" that the principle of unrestricted movement applied only in business or to goods. When it came to teachers or students, several European doors seemed to be firmly bolted. Academics, undergraduates and other educationists seeking to work or study have long travelled from Britain to other European countries, or vice versa, and discovered that their qualifications, whether professional or academic, are either not recognised by the second country or considered inferior.

This happens in particular where an individual's profession or field of study is unknown in the host country or is not governed by training or study regulations. The EU has now acknowledged the need to make the European dimension of education a reality, through the establishment of a European market in skills and training. Specifically the Education Council has asked the commissioner responsible, former French prime minister Edith Cresson, to produce by the end of 1998 an update of the current situation and a report on the progress that is being made towards harmonisation.

The Treaty of European Union may not give powers or legal responsibility for education policies to the European Parliament or to the Commission but there is widespread agreement, that the present "closed shop" arrangements are not compatible with the idea of a liberal and transparent Europe. There are still likely to be many obstacles ahead, for most academic institutions guard their own autonomy preciously and are, in many cases, reluctant to accept others' qualifications as equal.

The commissioner will want to tread gently and Mrs Cresson is likely to suggest the possibility of establishing, probably on a voluntary basis, a "European Supplement" or an addendum to explain any qualification granted in member states. This annex could describe the length of study pursued, the content of any course and the suggested parallel status that it might be afforded in other countries.

After the debate in the European Parliament a modest four-point plan of action was proposed. Unsurprisingly the need for greater information was considered of paramount importance. This will require national institutions to gather very specific information about content of courses, stating to exactly what level of competence people have studied and which specific skills they have obtained. This information can then be made available to other countries, perhaps through the establishment of a new European education agency.

Mrs Cresson will find some opposition to her second proposal, to establish a formal body for academic consultations. Many networks of professionals who meet to discuss, debate and write about academic and other educational matters already exist at European level. Whether it is practical to create official bodies along the same lines and give them powers to award international diplomas or to adjudicate on qualifications is another matter and may be ruled out.

The third point is probably the most contentious and covers "jointly agreed adaptation of training". "Jointly agreed" presumably means voluntary, for anything else would be in contradiction of the Maastricht Treaty.

Many thousands of students have already completed periods of valuable study abroad at other universities under the Erasmus programme.

This has contributed enormously to international understanding and academic co-operation. Socrates and Leonardo, the latest European programmes, have continued to build on these foundations and it is to be hoped that progress can be continued without the need for more legislation, thereby alleviating the perceived threat to member states' individuality and the principle of subsidiarity.

Achieving high quality education is one of the union's fundamental objectives and few would argue with that objective in any country. However, given the tremendous diversities in the education systems of the different countries and the vast cultural variations, the international criteria defining quality must be established jointly. The European Parliament will continue to argue for the involvement of students in the process of assessing quality.

Parliament's report on the commission document highlighted once again one of the major problems for the United Kingdom in that the inability to speak and understand foreign languages probably continues to be one of the most serious obstacles to mobility.

While John Major continues his dangerous game of dare, the rest of Europe may become exasperated and might decide to create a free market in education without British involvement. Should this happen there will be no winners this side of the Channel for, in the long run, we cannot afford to be left out of any international academic or educational initiatives.

Robert Evans is MEP for London North West and Labour's European Parliamentary spokesperson on education.

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