Conflict looms over EU mobility

July 4, 1997

The Government is set to become embroiled in further tough debates over European mobility in education, training and research.

At last week's council of education ministers in Luxembourg, a European Commission paper warned that there were still obstacles to mobility and stressed that it was crucial that free movement was not seen "as the exclusive domain of a privileged elite".

The commission says that one of the key obstacles to mobility is the difficulty of trying to transfer grants or other forms of financial support when individuals move out of their home member state for study or training.

While a number of countries, particularly the Nordic states, are enthusiastic about transferring grants, education and employment minister Tessa Blackstone is more wary.

"We're very happy with the present arrangements whereby students who are on a UK-based course wish to spend part of that period in a European university under properly worked-out arrangements. But I think it would be rather more difficult simply to open this up for any student who decided they liked the idea of doing a longer course in another country."

At the council meeting, she also opposed any attempt to harmonise national tax and social security legislation, a proposal floated in the commission's green paper on obstacles to mobility.

But she pledged that employability would be a major theme of the UK's presidency of the EU next year, and that she wanted to see the EC's education and social affairs councils working together on this.

Edith Cresson, European commissioner for education, training and youth, said the recent Amsterdam summit had clearly emphasised the importance of education in defending the European social model and improving competitiveness. Young people who had studied in other member states were an antidote to the growing mood of Euroscepticism.

"People across Europe, particularly young people, feel they receive less attention than goods and services, but Europe is there for people," she said.

Baroness Blackstone endorsed another of the commission's concerns, that mobility is hampered by a lack of language skills.

"The UK doesn't have a great deal to crow about as far as our capacity to speak other European languages is concerned," she said. "I recognise the problem that it's more difficult to motivate young people in a country whose language is now the world language. However, it's important that we address this and try to encourage young people to become competent certainly in one other European language."

Brian Wilson, Scottish Office minister for education, condemned the level of language skills among Scottish school-leavers as a disgrace. He revealed that he has launched an investigation of why the number of Scottish pupils studying a modern language at higher grade has dropped from 36 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1995. "It is clear to me that we must not continue to accept linguistic insularity," he said. "That is why I am making this issue one of my top priorities."

The commission says there has been a great deal of innovative work in language learning and teaching, and is urging member states to build on that experience.

"I think it is very important that the UK realises that we can learn from other countries," Baroness Blackstone said. "We don't have a monopoly of knowledge and understanding in our education and training system, so I want to be very positive and try to gain something from best practice in other countries."

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