The education ministers of Bremen, Flanders, the Netherlands, Lower Saxony and Northrhine-Westphalia have drawn up an action plan to stimulate regional collaboration in higher education and research.
The ministers argue that although European programmes, such as Erasmus and Lingua, and other support for research have provided an impetus to cross-frontier collaboration, progress is slow on building co-operative structures.
Northwestern Europe, with its 45 million inhabitants, a high density of higher education and research institutions, and close cultural affinities is particularly suitable for collaborative ventures, they maintain.
Meeting in Maastricht, the ministers agreed a package that includes consultation on and coordination of local higher education measures, especially if they affect other partner states, and improving publicity on higher education and research in the region.
Joint surveys are to be conducted on funding and autonomy of institutions, and the five states intend to co-operate on quality assessment methods and indicators.
The transition from school to tertiary education and the structure of higher education are to be examined in the light of regional demands. The countries also want to remove obstacles to student and lecturer exchange and mobility.
The authors of the action plan believe that in the long run, the establishment of joint-study courses will enhance quality and result in students that are better equipped for the European labour market, since they have become familiar with different cultures and speak several languages.
Collaboration between higher education and individual research institutes is to be encouraged, and it is hoped that cross-frontier research networks will create an intellectual potential that could attract more business to the region.
The ultimate goal is to create an open education and research area that could act as a model for developments at European Union level. Ministers pledged that they were willing to provide ample funds and staff to carry out necessary research into the individual higher education systems. An annual conference of education ministers to set the agenda and approve new funding measures has also been agreed.
Northrhine-Westphalia and the Netherlands have already initiated a number of joint schemes between fachhochschulen and university libraries.
There are plans to link a course in Dutch studies at the University of Munster and German studies at the University of Nijmingen to form a joint course on German and Dutch regional studies.
The Netherlands House, which was opened in Munster last month, is to accommodate Munster University's Dutch seminar, the centre for Dutch studies, founded in 1989, and the university's Dutch library. It will also be used to run part-time ourses for students wishing to take up a profession in the Netherlands.