An association representing hundreds of European higher education institutions plans to promote cross-border education using open and distance-learning teaching.
Some 350 teachers and researchers from throughout Europe attended a three-day brain-storming conference organised by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities earlier this month. At the end of the conference they signed the Sorbonne 2000 declaration, which builds on the earlier Sorbonne and Bologna declarations.
EADTU members committed themselves to "contribute to the creation of the European area of higher education by promoting cross-border education using methods of open and distance learning".
By signing the declaration, EADTU members undertook to work together to make full use of new electronic learning environments, such as virtual mobility of students, exchange of IT-based courses and organisation of seminars and intensive programmes that might be combined with physical mobility or traditional methods.
They also agreed to develop joint research and development to make open and distance learning between countries as effective as possible "according to technical and educational standards, including credit transfer, and to open national borders for joint European initiatives".
In her closing speech to the conference, Viviane Reding, European Union education commissioner, said the traditional university sector trailed behind primary and secondary schools in its enthusiasm for technological change, and she questioned whether the ivory towers might be replaced by "superb digital towers".
She identified the three major challenges as access to information and resources; communication and the opportunities provided by the internet and email; and cooperation for developing high-quality educational programmes and services.
She finished her speech with a call to "reply to the challenge thrown to us by the United States", which was, she said, along with Australia and Canada, forging ahead in the sector with much determination.
Jack Lang, education minister of France, which holds the EU presidency, also warned of "the risk that the North American model of higher education and training will impose itself through distance learning". "As well as the financial stakes, this would be a cultural catastrophe," he said.
The main aims of the conference were to assess the direction higher education should take over the next ten years, identify examples of good practice in information communication technologies in member institutions and encourage collaboration in teaching and research among members.
Seven academic networking sessions covered educational research and technology, science and technology, humanities, health care and social work, languages and culture, law and business administration, libraries and learning support and European study centres.
Opinion, page 14