Politicians may beef about being in the European Union but the benefits for higher education are unquestionable, says Olga Wojtas. The European summit in Florence this weekend is being overshadowed by growing squabbling over the United Kingdom's place in the European Union. While many fail to see the logic of the Government's non-cooperation tactics when these undermine measures which the UK supports, there is widespread questioning of the benefit to the UK from European links.
But the benefit to higher education is unquestionable. Since 1990, almost 60,000 UK students have taken up Erasmus exchanges, backed by a budget of Ecus 52 million (Pounds 42 million), while research income from the EU has increased steadily, totalling well over Pounds 317 million. Higher education institutions attract more than Pounds 21 million annually from the European Social Fund for training and employment, the bulk of their schemes supporting graduates.
All of the UK's higher education institutions are now involved in Erasmus student mobility, as are a small but growing number of further education colleges. France is by far the most popular host country, followed by Germany and Spain, while the most popular subject is business studies, followed by languages. The UK's Socrates-Erasmus bureau reports a steady growth in institutions' average number of inter-university cooperation programmes, from five in 1989/90 to 11 last session.
Some institutions are involved in as many as 50 ICPs, sending out around 400 students annually. The average number of partners, host institutions to which UK universities and colleges send their students, has grown from 9.5 in 1990/91 to 25 in 1995/96, with some institutions now having more than 70 partners. "This is probably one of the most successful of all European programmes," says UK bureau director John Reilly.
"There are multifaceted benefits for the students living, working and socialising in another country. Their language skills develop, and they tend to get a completely new dimension for their academic work. Initially, they feel it is more circumscribed, but at the end, their general knowledge base in their subject has increased enormously."
The vast majority of Erasmus students see the exchange as the most important experience of their university career, Mr Reilly says. "Staff have the advantage of networking with colleagues, which can be interesting and fun in itself but can also support them when making research applications."
Research grants and contracts from government bodies in the EU, mainly the European Commission, continue to rise steadily. Awards to the traditional universities reached Pounds 97 million in 1993/94, an increase of per cent on the previous year, and a massive 154 per cent increase since 1989/90.
While the new universities attracted less than Pounds 1 million in 1990, their share was nudging Pounds 5 million by 1993/94. Edinburgh University vice principal John Laver points out that EU funding does not simply replicate or replace UK research funds, but promotes projects which could not otherwise be done. "A key criterion for getting European funding is that the research should be at a European scale - these should not be projects which can be supported on a national basis," he says. "This opens the way to addressing large scale topics with all the benefits which that then brings."
The EC strongly encourages research links with industry, and Professor Laver stresses that the rationale behind this is specifically to increase Europe's economic competitiveness. "There is a very direct beneficial reason for European society at large to invest in research."
But EC funding is not an unalloyed advantage, since it covers only a small proportion of indirect costs. A spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said: "There is a strain on universities' own resources from taking on these contracts. But they take them on because they see added value, collaboration with other European universities which brings another dimension into the research, and collaboration outside universities."
Institutions annually seek funding for around 1,100 projects under the European Social Fund Objective 3 scheme, which aims to help people find work and to promote equal opportunities between men and women. (Merseyside is uniquely eligible for Objective 1 funding, aimed at supporting underdeveloped regions.) Higher education annually attracts around 6 per cent of the UK's ESF funds, and 500 projects are being supported this year, around 70 per cent of which are at postgraduate level.
"The ESF is frequently used to give graduates a more vocational bent to their education, such as arts graduates being trained in marketing," said a spokeswoman for Padraig Flynn, European commissioner for employment and social affairs.
Two of the leading institutions this year are Aberdeen and Salford universities, each in line for around Pounds 1.5 million. Salford is planning 16 projects to benefit almost 550 students, including information technology in business, advanced manufacturing and environmental biochemistry. Aberdeen has a proposed 28 projects for 450 students, ranging from management skills for women and health sciences to agro-industrial technology and marine and fisheries science.