HIGHER education officials have echoed Tony Blair's call for a more positive approach to Europe during Britain's presidency of the European Union.
As the prime minister set out his agenda for the presidency this week, the Department for Education and Employment gave details of plans to encourage universities and colleges to be more active in Europe.
David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, has put employability at the heart of his department's agenda for education and social affairs during the presidency. Further and higher education institutions will be expected to play a key role in efforts to cut EU unemployment, now estimated at 18 million.
A priority will be to encourage more British students to study foreign languages and spend some time studying on the continent.
The DFEE and vice-chancellors have expressed concern over the widening gap between the number of European students in the United Kingdom and the number of UK students in EU states. In 1996-97 the number of UK students taking an Erasmus grant to study on the continent fell by 8 per cent.
The government fears that the UK is building a language deficit that will ultimately reduce employability for British graduates.
Universities have complained that they stand to lose out financially in Erasmus exchanges as the new tuition fees regime is introduced. Erasmus students from the continent pay local fees but are exempt from UK fees of up to Pounds 1,000, while UK Erasmus students spending a full year abroad are required to pay their home institution just Pounds 500.
The DFEE hopes to tackle these and other issues with an agenda that is expected to include: European funding to help set up crash foreign language courses for students about to study abroad, Quality kitemarking for language courses in education, including those in higher education, Cash compensation for British institutions with Erasmus students spending a year abroad, Informing university and college heads of European issues, Establishing a pan-European higher education quality assurance network.
The DFEE has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to consider compensating institutions for the Pounds 500 they stand to lose for each full-year Erasmus student.
It also expects support for language teaching to be a key feature of the programmes succeeding Socrates and Erasmus after 2000.
Key issues are to be debated at a higher education heads conference in Manchester on April 6 and 7, a Lifelong Learning conference in Manchester on May 17 to 19 and a joint social affairs and education council meeting in Luxembourg on June 4.