One step forward

September 24, 1999


Will the European Higher Education Area be able to do all it is intended to? asks Anne Corbett.

My current reading addresses those in the United States governing class and its "wannabes" who think the world is new and its political problems fresh. Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, authors of Thinking in Time, draw on the Kennedy and Carter eras to make a case that sounds obvious but is often ignored: to avoid policy failure, make your choices knowing the history of an issue and understanding where the players come from.

The decision taken by 29 European governments at Bologna earlier this year to work towards a European higher education "space" in ways that specifically exclude the European Commission (THES, June 25 and July 16) fails the Neustadt and May test.

At first reading, the commitment to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010 sounds impressive. There is a list of national commitments, including structuring diplomas to make them "easily readable" across Europe; introducing a credit accumulation system as well as a credit transfer system; providing protection for the statutory rights of teachers,researchers and administrative staff (on national agendas since 1976); and promoting joint curricular development and Europe-wide cooperation in quality assurance. In addition, France, keen to shorten university study periods, wants all institutions to adopt a British-style structure of university studies, divided between undergraduate and postgraduate work.

So why not three cheers? Especially now that the themes of mobility, a higher education area and a Europe of knowledge are taken up at the highest level. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, has put the extension of the Socrates-Erasmus programme high on his list of aims.

At June's G-8 summit in Cologne, heads of government chided the council and the European Parliament for not yet agreeing the new Socrates budget.

During the summit, Tony Blair (who has not made this commitment domestically) called for more exchanges of teachers, administrators and students. But an Anglo-French coalition at Bologna cut out all references to the EU.

This seems an astonishing strategy in any circumstances. Over the past 30 years there have been four institutional players on European university issues: universities through their representatives - the Confederation of European Rectors' Conferences and the Association of European Universities; national governments; EU institutions, most notably the commission; and, on the fringe, inter-governmental organisations, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It is the commission that has developed the know-how on almost every Bologna issue. Of course, the commission and the other community institutions can be criticised. But there are three huge achievements on higher education policy (excluding research).

The first is that mechanisms have evolved that build on university autonomy, do not threaten national cultural traditions and have proved capable of extension beyond the EU. The number of non-EU members now associated with the Erasmus programme almost equals EU members, and there are further international links.

The second achievement is as important, at least outside Britain, France and Germany. Mobility based on free-market concepts simply strengthens the strong. The organised basis of EU schemes for cooperation and exchange benefits all participants.

Third, the EU, unlike the inter-governmental organisations, has a good record on policy outcomes.

Paradoxically, the Bologna declaration was made at the precise moment a new president was organising the commission in a way that favours university interests. A former university man with a strong commitment to the cultural diversity of Europe - "cultural diversity is our luck," as he said to the European Parliament - Mr Prodi has resisted the lobby to place education with employment, that is, in an instrumental role.

In this commission, education is to be integrated with culture. In the most immediate terms that means that all cooperation programmes such as the Jean Monnet Professorships join with the higher education cooperation services.

The new commissioner (see profile right) will not lack for opportunities to develop cooperation further.

But it is the history of universities and the European Community that provides the telling lesson. In the 1960s, five member states gave in on a higher education issue to the sixth, headed by General de Gaulle. Other issues, such as keeping France in the EEC, were more important. The results for education and culture were disastrous. De Gaulle's insistence that cooperation should be political not community-based meant nothing happened for ten years. The Council of Europe was no substitute.

By contrast, the mid-1980s were a creative period for higher education in the community, marked by the foundation of Erasmus and other programmes.

There was an effective policy team in the commission, an entrepreneurial commissioner for education, Peter Sutherland (former chairman of GATT, now chairman of Goldman Sachs), Jacques Delors was commission president, and a French president with ambitions for the community, Francois Mitterrand, was ready to work on his summit colleagues, including Margaret Thatcher.

But there were also institutional rules that kept the process advancing.

One lesson of EU history is that policies need entrepreneurs. If results are to be achieved, that means the commission or a special lookalike. The European Higher Education Area looks less like a re-run of the 1980s community practices and more like the time of de Gaulle or the European Free Trade Association. And look what happened to that.

Anne Corbett is researching a political science doctorate on EU higher education policies at the London School of Economics.

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