Entente cordiale benefits students

February 7, 2003

This week's bridge-building summit between the UK and France over Iraq produced one spectacular success in the form of a groundbreaking agreement to create the first cross-Channel university, writes Alan Thomson.

While UK prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac attempted to thaw frosty relations between the two states over the military build-up against Iraq, education secretary Charles Clarke signed an education accord with his opposite number Luc Ferry.

The accord gives official blessing to the two-year-old "Transmanche University" project initiated by Kent University, the three Universities of Lille and the University of the Littoral, which is based in Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk.

It means the five universities - the Lille universities are separated on a subject basis - will collaborate on research and teaching. Students and staff will benefit by regular cross-Channel contact. Staff will exchange and develop research ideas and projects, while students will benefit from greater subject choice and the chance to learn a foreign language.

David Melville, vice-chancellor of Kent University, has his eye on other overseas markets, particularly in English-speaking countries such as the US. Such students traditionally value the opportunity to study in England but will now have increased access to a foreign, non-English culture.

Professor Melville is also developing a medical programme in conjunction with the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guys and St Thomas' hospitals, now merged with King's College London, in partnership with one of the Lille institutions.

He said: "This creates a real transfrontier university, which will be an educational powerhouse between Britain and France."

Professor Melville is negotiating with the Department for Education and Skills on the issue of tuition fees. Annual course fees in France average £500, while fees in the UK are set at a maximum of £1,100 this year and are set to rise to a maximum of £3,000 a year from 2006.

The problem is that European law states that all European Union students must have equal treatment with regard to fees and any loan or grant entitlement. Professor Melville was confident that something would be worked out.

The accord, signed by Mr Clarke, also paves the way for a schools programme involving pupil and staff exchanges between the two countries.

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