The European Commission has appointed
a new president. Harriet Swain weighs up the future implications for universities.
Crisis in the European Commission, which led to this summer's clear-out of commissioners, has coincided with a growing momentum for cooperation between universities in Europe.
This has come from both a belief in the principle of easy movement for students and academics between European countries and the desire to promote a more competitive European market based on knowledge and skills.
Last year France, Britain, Germany and Italy signed the Sorbonne declaration in Paris calling for more harmonisation of their higher education systems.
This year the Bologna declaration, signed by 31 education ministers, including all 15 European Union member states, agreed to work towards a Europe-wide framework allowing comparison of degrees and other higher education qualifications.
Kenneth Edwards, president of the Association of European Universities (CRE), suggests the power vacuum at the heart of Europe may have prompted ministers from the member states to step in and do something about improving higher education links themselves.
He points out that there was no reference to the commission in the Bologna document.
Indeed, both declarations took place while the education
commissioner, Edith Cresson,
was embroiled in a series of
controversies that eventually
resulted in the resignation of
the entire commission.
But with former professor Romano Prodi now at the helm of a new commission and the election of a new European Parliament, can universities expect anything different from Europe?
So far as the top personnel are concerned, it is early days. Both Luxembourger Viviane Reding, stepping into the new education and culture brief, and Philippe Busquin, taking over research together with science and technology, are still being briefed by officials and are likely to concentrate first on minor organisational matters. Their immediate influence will be limited anyway because most policies behind European programmes in education and research have now been agreed.
Reding, vice-president of the Christian Socialist Party in Luxembourg, former journalist and a member of the European Parliament for ten years, will be preoccupied with the restructuring of her department into education and culture, incorporating part of the communications directorate and losing science.
Busquin, leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party in Belgium and a former assistant lecturer in physics at the Free University of Brussels, has so far been best known for an explosive paper for the European Socialists calling for common tax rules, which caused endless problems for the British chancellor Gordon Brown.
Of prime concern for Busquin will be the Fifth Framework programme for research, decided in December last year after months of wrangling over its budget. This involves four thematic programmes designed to find solutions to specific problems and three "horizontal" programmes responding to common needs across all research areas.
It differs from previous framework programmes by encouraging multi disciplinary approaches to solve concrete problems rather than organising research into separate disciplines. Management changes have also been introduced to try to simplify and speed up procedures, prompt more involvement from industry and establish partnerships with small and medium-sized businesses.
A spokesman for the commission's research directorate said: "It is almost certain that the number of projects we are able to fund will be less but the level of funding will be substantially bigger for each project because there will be a bigger number of actors involved - from academia, the community and business."
The Fifth Framework's budget was eventually decided at ¤14.96 billion euros (around Pounds 9.9 billion) until 2002 - a 4.6 per cent increase compared with the Fourth Framework Programme.
The first call for proposals was sent out in March, the same month the commission resigned, which cannot have made life easy.
Godelieve Quisthoudt-Rowohl, a Christian Democrat MEP and former rapporteur for the Fifth Framework, said: "I have heard from many people that the Fifth Framework is not working as well as people would like. The commissioner with the most difficulties was the research commissioner (Edith Cresson). We will have to focus on it as quickly as possible because we have lost a lot of time."
Most severely affected by Cresson's problems was the Leonardo da Vinci Programme, now under the aegis of Reding.
This aims to improve quality and innovation in vocational training across Europe, particularly by improving language skills and equal opportunities.
The commission closed down the bureau responsible for the programme in February and cancelled its Pounds 500 million contract with the private firm Agenor that ran the scheme and was accused of overcharging.
It is now back on course - in fact the only commission programme expected to meet its starting deadline. Leonardo da Vinci II is expected to go into action early next year with an overall budget of ¤1.15 billion (Pounds 760 million) over seven years. This represents an increase compared with the first Leonardo programme, which was worth ¤620 million (Pounds 410 million) over five years, although the number of participating countries has increased.
The programme is also now about 80 per cent decentralised.
This is part of an attempt by the commission to answer calls from member states for simpler and more user-friendly programmes with, at the same time, more rigorous checks and balances.
Erasmus, the part of the Socrates education programme dealing specifically with student mobility, has cost ¤920 million (Pounds 608 million) over the past five years and is likely to see a budget increase for its next seven-year stage, which starts next year.
The same is true of the Youth for Europe Programme, which now incorporates the European Voluntary Service. It aims to promote cooperation between young people and respect for cultural difference and carries a strong educational element. It part-funds people under 25 to spend time in another European country working on specific social and cultural projects.
Its final budget for the next five years is likely to be about ¤350 million (Pounds 231 million).
Tempus, adopted in May 1990 to help regenerate universities in former communist states in Eastern Europe, has also been approved for extension.
But MEP Andrew Duff, outgoing director of the Federal Trust, an independent think-tank that focuses on European integration, says the commission's approach to education still needs drastic changes to meet complaints over slowness, bureaucracy and accountability.
"I would be surprised if it were to survive without a very severe reappraisal," he said. "The management of programmes such as Socrates has been so poor and there have been so many complaints from universities and research institutes over the last number of years."
He said "the breeze of subsidiarity was also blowing much stronger", which meant people were now questioning whether the commission should become involved in education and culture any further than managing exchange visits.
As it is, education and training absorbs only 0.4 per cent of the European Union's budget and has never been a high-profile policy area.
Neil Winn, lecturer in European studies at the University of Leeds, says education is particularly sensitive for the commission to tackle, since member states tend to resent interference in anything involving cultural identity.
Universities also tend to pride themselves on their autonomy, which often makes it difficult for national governments, let alone European institutions, to interfere in their affairs.
But commissioners will have to act quickly on higher education if they want to assert control in this area over the European Parliament, newly elected and flexing its muscles.
Mr Prodi singled out for mention the 500,000 students who study in other member states through the Erasmus programme in one of his first speeches as president, suggesting that it was something he intends to watch.
One of the issues agreed at Bologna was the principle of a two-level European higher education system, with first-level degrees taking three or four years to complete and a further postgraduate level.
National governments across Europe already appear, albeit slowly, to be reforming their systems to comply with this principle.
Efforts are also under way by research institutions in different European countries to compile comparable statistics on such issues as staff pay and conditions and students' qualifications.
European universities, which date back to the beginning of this millennium, have always upheld the values of operating and collaborating internationally.
New technology is making this ever easier, as well as speeding up the bureaucracy of centrally organised programmes such as Erasmus.
Over the next few months, discussions in Europe are likely to decide what level of government will lead the way for university co-operation into the next millennium.