Currency before exchange

October 19, 2001

UK universities prefer fee-paying students to European ones. Anne Corbett laments our policy on mobility.

Is it an idea whose time has come - that British students catch up with their continental cousins? Will the "Eurosemester" soon be as normal as the gap year? Could our students expect to live and work in at least two languages, playing an active part in that "meeting of minds" for which Jack Lang, the French minister of education, campaigns?

Margaret Hodge, minister of state for lifelong learning and higher education, writes, along with Mr Lang, in a pamphlet published this week by the Franco-British Council: "The more closely aligned European higher education area that we are all building is giving increased options to our students to be mobile."

Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, says that UUK is supporting all measures to promote Erasmus and similar programmes. The Higher Education Funding Council for England plans to examine international student mobility.

All that is welcome. But British student mobility is in decline. If more British students are going to cross the Channel, political and institutional leaders have to remove barriers to reverse the pattern, let alone create change.

Hilary Footitt and I have gathered 50 contributions on academic mobility between the UK and France and have come to a number of conclusions.

There are great opportunities for British students that are not necessarily widely known. Many institutions, such as Bath University, build on imaginative European partnerships, rooted in the Socrates-Erasmus programme. These extend to joint masters degrees and, in at least eight universities, jointly supervised PhDs.

The Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) networks with more than 200 universities across the world. Bilateral examples include the teaching assistants programmes, the year at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration on the inside track to the top of the civil service, schemes for engineers and lawyers, the British Academy Host science and industry awards, and the Entente Cordiale scheme of cultural immersion for future opinion formers.

British students who have recently spent study time in France sound convincing about the benefits that come from learning to negotiate distinctively different cultural depths. This may have been done by taking the plunge in local amateur dramatics, volunteer teaching, talking their way into the TGV driver's cab as a future British engineer or by being post-existential somewhere on the Côte d'Azur. Of course, it has made them more employable.

Explanations for why fewer British students are prepared, or able, to study overseas leave some important questions unanswered. The complacent explain that the imbalance between incoming and outgoing European Union students is a fact of life: Britain imports large numbers from Europe and elsewhere because English is the lingua franca and our universities are renowned. More on-target are those who trace the British lack of enthusiasm to three factors:

  • Many British universities are unwilling to validate exams passed in France or to make the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) work
  • The financial costs of study abroad discriminate against low-income students
  • There may be language difficulties, although this problem is now being addressed in the wake of the Nuffield inquiry. But these explanations ignore the possibility that many of the problems are structural, associated with funding rules, short degrees or policy choices linked to other preferences (for example, preferring full fee-paying overseas students to EU students).

Diplomatically, Jean-Claude Sergeant, a pioneer of Franco-British cooperation as professor at the University Paris III, and Francis Verillaud, director of international relations at Sciences Po, refer to "problems" that foreign institutions encounter. It is difficult to negotiate with universities that have no clear institutional international policy. We know that cooperative and cross-departmental ventures are often the first to be at risk.

A French-based contributor suggests that the point about the European intellectual economy is that students are not exchangeable commodities, they are common assets. French and other European university systems have welcomed the Europe-wide strategy for globalisation that plays on both cooperation and competition, enshrined in the 1999 Bologna declaration. Famous institutions are implementing the ECTS and the European semester. If there is anything happening on the Bologna criteria in Britain, it is not emerging in public.

We scanned the websites of government and national university organisations in vain for policy statements that link our autonomous, accessible, enterprising, enlightening universities into this Europe of Knowledge, research funding apart.

As a British Academy contribution points out, the commission proposes much more mobility funding under the next Framework programme. This makes a rounded approach all the more urgent.

The lesson we draw from these Franco-British examples is that the European dimension of UK higher education is a mess. The policy framework is fragmented and ad hoc. There is no shared agenda, no shared alternative visions. So there is no national strategy. It must be time for an initiative - we suggest an inquiry - bringing together UK university stakeholders to see how better to link academic mobility and a coherent European policy for UK higher education.

Anne Corbett is editor of Crossing the Channel, Promoting Academic Mobility Within Europe , Franco-British Council (British section), £8.00; email:

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