Students in the United Kingdom will be unable to compete with their European peers unless more is done to promote the benefits of a year's study abroad, Erasmus chief John Reilly has warned.
Mr Reilly, director of the United Kingdom Erasmus programme, called on the Higher Education Funding Council for England to include participation in European student exchange programmes in its annual performance indicators for universities.
Mr Reilly was speaking in response to figures that show the number of UK students taking part in the Erasmus programme slumped from 10,595 in 1997-98 to under 10,000 in 1998-99.
Numbers participating from individual universities ranged from more than 320 at Birmingham to 15 or fewer at Teesside, Bournemouth and Paisley.
While Southampton University doubled the number of its students joining the programme, at the universities of Wolverhampton and Thames Valley numbers halved between 1996-97 and 1998-99.
Universities blame student poverty and anxiety to get into the job market quickly, as well as lack of foreign languages, for students' failure to take up Erasmus places.
But Mr Reilly said many other European students faced these problems too.
"There is a general recognition among European students that if they want to be at the centre of the action they need to demonstrate language skills, the ability to work in a different culture. That is not a message that is coming through in the UK," he said.
While France remains the most popular destination for those UK students who take up an Erasmus place, Germany has been edged into third place by Spain.
Language students are still overwhelmingly the most likely to join the programme, followed by those taking business studies. Relatively few are from science or information technology subjects.
A report earlier this month by the European Parliament called for more frequent surveys and statistics to find out what prevents many European higher education students applying to the Erasmus programme.
Proposals for monitoring the Erasmus programme will be presented in the autumn by Viviane Reding, the European commissioner responsible for education.