BRITISH universities and colleges have joined in a chorus of protest across Europe against drastic cuts in European Commission grants supporting student and lecturer exchanges.
They have condemned funding under the new Socrates programme, amounting on average to 10 per cent of bids, as "a kick in the teeth" to the European dimension of higher education.
And they have demanded withdrawal of "outrageous" clauses in contracts that would give the commission the power to inspect all university accounts.
The commission's Socrates office has been inundated with letters of complaint from representative bodies of universities, including the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, since news of the cuts emerged.
The biggest shock for institutions was the commission's decision to allocate only Ecu25 million (Pounds 17.5 million) for "Action 1" contracts for organising student exchanges, quality assurance, curriculum development and credit transfer. The money has had to be spread between 1,600 institutions in 18 countries.
British institutions have been particularly hard hit because the strength of the pound has reduced the value of the Ecu from over 80p to 70p. On average, institutions have been left with grants worth just Pounds 28 per student and Pounds 18 per lecturer on exchange in Europe.
Some universities regarded as "big players" in Europe, such as Manchester University, have had bids worth about Pounds 350,000 slashed to Pounds 15,000. Many are now threatening to withdraw from European programmes or seriously restrict their activities on the continent unless more money is found.
Howard Newby, vice chancellor Southampton University, and British representative on the European Union Rectors Conference, said: "This university, in common with most British universities, is committed to the Socrates ideal. But this looks like a kick in the teeth to that ideal. The whole thing is just a massive disincentive to get involved. If we were taking a short-term view, we would just pull the plug on it."
Anger has been fuelled by the addition of clauses to contracts which mean institutions will only receive 70 per cent of grants, with the rest held back until final reports on how the money has been used are produced.
Vice chancellors are also incensed by a clause which would give the commission the power to check all university accounts, whether or not they relate to Socrates funding.
Roger Blows, policy advisor at the CVCP, said: "This would be an outrageous invasion of autonomy. Institutions are asking why they should subject themselves to this and a protracted administrative process if you are talking about a few miserable K."
It is expected that the clauses, but not the funding, will be reviewed at a committee meeting in Brussels next Friday.
Institutions had been told grants would be smaller than they had been used to under the previous Erasmus programme, and many had been over optimistic in their bids, sources have suggested.
Plans to add an extra Ecu50 million to the Socrates budget were reined back to an additional Ecu25 million at the Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels last week.
The extra money will not be available until next year, and will have to be spread across programmes for schools and colleges, as well as higher education. Five more middle and eastern European countries will have joined the programme by then, increasing the demand on grants.
John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates/Erasmus Council, said there was a danger the programme would be seen by institutions as offering "limited money coupled with burdensome contracts". He added: "Irrespective of what institutions bid for, the outcome is pretty restricted."
* Opinion, page 11
* Council of education ministers, page 8