Europe would 'riot' over a fees hike

April 7, 2006

France's former education minister has publicly endorsed new Labour's scheme of undergraduate tuition fees for English universities, while acknowledging that it would provoke rioting in the streets in other EU states.

Claude All gre, Minister of Education in the Lionel Jospin cabinet from 1997 to 2000, and now a professor at Diderot University in Paris, told European university rectors this week that a programme of fees backed with loans and bursaries to be implemented in England from October was an "interesting case".

But he added: "Today, I guarantee that in France or Italy there will be riots right away if you raise fees. But the example of the UK is an interesting case."

Professor All gre, who was one of the architects of the Bologna Process, also called for an increase in student mobility through a sharing of the costs between governments and the European Union.

Georg Winckler, president of the European University Association, told its conference in Hamburg that a group set up after October's Hampton Court European summit would suggest specific targets for student mobility across the EU and recommend removal of obstacles to staff mobility.

The group will also propose university action to monitor and tackle graduate unemployment, Professor Winckler, a member of the group and rector of the University of Vienna, said.

On the subject of tuition fees, he said that while the EUA would continue to explore the complexities of the issue, decisions should be taken at a national rather than a European level. Questions included not only the level of fees and the effect on access but the implications for higher degrees.

The EUA argues that Europe is lagging behind international competitors in terms of the share of GDP spent on universities - only 1.2 per cent in Europe against 2.7 per cent in the US and 2.6 per cent in Canada.

But it accepts that, while more state funding is needed, alternative sources of funding must be found to fill the gap. Tuition fees are seen as one source, coupled with student aid schemes to ensure wide access and equity.

Professor Winckler said: "We have to be aware of the consequences tuition fees would have. We have to discuss the impact of tuition fees on access.

"If issues of increasing or introducing tuition fees come up, politically one has to link the issue with student support. This is very clear in the USI What we in the EUA have to stress is how tuition fees introduced in some countries affect cross-border mobility."

The EUA has explicitly shifted the fees debate in Europe from the principles to the practicalities.

Jorg Drager, Germany's Minister for Education, who is in the process of introducing fees, opened the conference. Susan Price, pro vice-chancellor of the University of East London, outlined UEL's plan to use scholarships and bursaries to maintain its mission to ethnic communities and mature students.

Meanwhile, Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, warned against viewing fees as the main solution to falling state funding.

Dissent came from Scandinavia and from Esib, the National Unions of Students in Europe. Esib, which maintains that higher education should remain free, is in danger of seeing its fruitful collaboration with EUA founder on the fees issue.

The EUA took a hard line on the European Commission's plans for a European Institute of Technology. Professor Winckler said: "We are in favour of competitive mechanisms to support excellence in research and innovation but not through top-down legal entities that fragment universities."

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