European universities are to shun so-called "cafeteria courses" as they devise a credit transfer and accumulation system that will drive ministers' dream of vastly increased student mobility across a European higher education zone by the end of the decade.
As the next steps are taken in the process that began with the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations, the European University Association will concentrate on a scaled-up European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) rather than allowing students to assemble their degree from random modules at an array of universities across the continent.
The aim is to present a coherent plan to education ministers from constituent states inside and outside the European Union in Berlin in September 2003. The EUA hopes to turn the ECTS from a small-scale operation devised for one specific purpose into a currency to foster more mobility between the 32 states involved.
Ultimately, ministers want Europe to be competitive with the US and Australia, which have highly developed markets for international students.
The ECTS has been progressively widened since it was established under the first Erasmus student mobility programme in 1988 as a pilot scheme across five subject areas - business administration, chemistry, history, mechanical engineering and medicine. It has been adopted as an accumulation system by 12 countries, with a another five considering doing so, and several other countries' systems being compatible, according to Stephen Adam, lecturer in political economy at the University of Westminster. Many of the former Eastern bloc countries have used ECTS as the model when rebuilding their university systems, partly with an eye to eventual integration within the EU.
EU commissioner Viviane Reding has given the EUA the task of monitoring convergence under the Bologna process and the implementation of the ECTS in readiness for the Graz convention of European higher education institutions in May 2003. The outcome of that convention will inform education ministers when they meet in Berlin.
EUA leaders want a scaled-up ECTS to encourage mobility and to enable universities to respond better to social changes and the changing profile of the student body. There is a wide variation across Europe of how directly credit systems mesh with the ECTS - if at all - and the EUA will have to devise a way of mapping existing schemes to the new framework sufficiently rigorously to maintain confidence while retaining flexibility and diversity.
Charles Kleiber, Swiss state secretary for science and research, said the ECTS was the central pillar of a European education system. "Without it, the others will not be able to develop. To create a true dialogue between nations, between universities, between professors and students, universities and society, one needs a simple language shared by all," he said.
Luigi Berlinguer, former Italian education minister and professor of law at the University of Siena, said the development of a pan-European credit accumulation and transfer system was "the essential platform for the creation of a European space of education - and for the encouragement of a real culture of mobility".
Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University and a member of the EUA board, said an "exchange rate" between national systems had to be devised without imposing too much uniformity. "It is no good going to politicians and civil servants and telling them that it is very difficult or that more research is needed. It will be better for us to try to solve these problems rather than for a solution to be imposed on us by an outside agency."