Academics from around the Mediterranean have been investigating how to build closer relations between European universities and their neighbours to the South and East.
The Civil Forum, which was held in the wake of last month's Euro-Mediterranean foreign ministers summit, could also pave the way for the launch of a major higher education programme to rival Erasmus and Tempus.
Since the mid-1980s, Europe's universities have been involved in a process of internationalisation. Programmes such as Erasmus, Tempus and Alpha have promoted links between European Union universities, and with Eastern Europe and Latin America.
With the exception of Medcampus, co-operation on a small scale, the issue of relations with North Africa and the Middle East has received scant attention. Individual universities have been left to build their own bi-lateral links. One such example is Peace, a support programme for Palestinian universities involving 36 European institutions that has been active since 1991. A second is the University of the Mediterranean, a grouping of 50 universities founded in 1989, which co-operates on research projects and short courses.
The time may now be ripe to go a step further. Simon-Pierre Northomb, secretary general of the EU economic and social committee, sees the Civil Forum as a chance to rationalise. "There are numerous bilateral or unilateral links which often get in each other's way," he said. "They often start off and then peter out as the ideas are good but the money is lacking."
But Franco Rizzi, director of the University of the Mediterranean, strongly believes that universities themselves should build the networks rather than relying on an overall EU framework. North-African and Middle-Eastern academics are keen to stress the importance of allowing their universities to set the priorities in any future exchange programmes.
The problems facing southern Mediterranean institutions are often very different from those of their northern counterparts. Mohammed Salim of Cairo University's political science department points out that many Egyptian universities are unable to expand as they have been hemmed in by the rapid urban growth common in many developing countries. "It is the dream of every high-school graduate to go to university regardless of whether he can get a job or not. So demand for higher education is very high in Egypt."
Gabi Baramki, of the Palestinian Council for Higher Education and coordinator of Peace, says closer links with EU universities could help provide the skilled workforce the country needs with visiting lecturers playing an important role.
While joint research programmes would be of mutual benefit, different priorities might arise. "IThe priorities of Palestinian universities lie with their community, a developing community, and therefore rather different from the European universities which are already advanced," he says.
Distance education is still very much in its infancy in North African and the Middle East, where the only fully fledged "open university" is in Palestine. This is still a young university, but it hopes eventually to become the open university for the whole of the Arab world.