At the EU summit, student mobility moved from pious hope to practical initiative, says Viviane Reding.
Neither the words "lucid" nor "simple" spring to the mind of anyone trying to unravel the conclusions of this month's European Union summit in Nice. This bruising marathon has nonetheless been interpreted as a step forward in the historic process of reuniting Europe, east and west. The implication is that the way to enlargement is clear at last.
In reality, a vast amount of work to prepare for enlargement has already been done, particularly through cooperation in higher education. Within months of the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the European Commission launched a university exchange programme, Tempus, which has helped to train a new generation of decision-makers in Eastern and Central Europe.
Trans-European Tempus partnerships involving nearly 2,000 higher education institutions have worked a quiet transformation, with many current government officials in the applicant countries gaining their first experience of Western Europe under the programme. In 1997, the EU's internal education, training and youth programmes progressively became accessible to these countries under the same conditions as in the member states, as part of the pre-accession strategy.
Enlargement is already a reality in everything that has to do with learning, and increasingly in the area of culture. Nice has confirmed that increasing the mobility of "all those being educated and their teachers in Europe is a major political goal, and that it requires simultaneous commitment and effort by the European Community and the member states".
The summit recognised that "substantial" obstacles remain: unequal access to information, financial constraints, administrative difficulties over tax and social benefits, complex residence procedures, and disadvantages in terms of status and career.
These obstacles are even more evident in the context of enlargement. To address them, a resolution was adopted, endorsing a plan for mobility drawn up by the commission and the French presidency.
This plan is not a top-down directive but a Swiss army knife that offers tools for cutting through obstacles to mobility, which member states are encouraged to use, on a voluntary basis, with the assistance of the commission.
The Nice summit emphasised the importance of multilingualism and the establishment of a portal giving access to the different European sources of information on mobility. It also emphasised training teachers and administrative staff to provide guidance and to draft mobility projects; the adoption of a quality charter on reception facilities for foreign nationals on training courses; an inventory of existing mobility circuits and good practices; and linkage between mobility funding from the EU, member states and local authorities, the public and the private sector.
Studying abroad is no longer seen as the prerogative of a minority of university students, made possible by arrangements such as scholarships or the Erasmus programme. From acting as clearings in the administrative jungle, EU education and training initiatives are now set to pioneer the opening of the whole of Europe, including the enlargement countries, as a potential campus for all forms of learning.
Set against the pocket-calculator approach to national influence we saw at Nice, this is a sweeping vision of common purpose. I warmly support the idea of extending student mobility at all stages of education. Developing a Europe-wide lifelong learning strategy will be a priority of the Swedish presidency, starting on January 1, which will also mark the launch of the 2001 European Year of Languages.
It will take time to create a European learning area, but the Nice summit represents a fundamental shift away from whether this should be our ambition to how it can best be achieved. The mobility action plan is not a pious hope but a practical initiative.
National interests are, of course, also present in education. While multinational companies compete to attract graduates, governments are increasingly explicit about their ambitions to attract students to their territory.
If there is a form of globalisation in higher education, however, the more intelligent demonstrators behind the teargas at meetings such as the Nice summit should be able to recognise that creating a European learning area is the opposite of any form of uniformisation. Enlargement is not only a geographical concept but a mental and cultural concept, an attitude that I hope will be reflected by an even more outgoing spirit among UK students.
Greater mobility in education will offer diversity of opportunity and a deeper understanding of other ways of life. It will improve learning and career development in an international economy and will offer a wider range of shared references and broader horizons.
Viviane Reding is European commissioner for education.