Socrates deserves its grande finale

December 19, 1997

A threatened unilateral ban on the import of beef and the fudge over Britain's membership of the inner circle of countries running the single currency have left a nasty taste in the mouth in the closing weeks of the Luxembourg presidency of the European Union.

A sweeter note was struck with the agreement between the European Commission and Parliament over the budget for the final two years of the Socrates student exchange programme, which includes Erasmus, that British universities did so much to pioneer.

That it failed to grab wider attention should be no surprises as even its enthusiasts are fond of pointing out that the Socrates programme could be doubled for the price of one day's Common Agricultural Policy payments. But the outcome for universities, which only a few months ago were expressing frustration at the bureaucracy bugging Socrates contracts to support staff and student exchanges, is substantial.

The Socrates deal means a Ecu70 million (Pounds 46 million) boost to the programme over two years and could mean an extra 10 per cent for Erasmus projects, depending on the progress of consultations between the commission and member states in coming weeks, The deal is a vindication for members of the European Parliament who, shocked by the initial suggestion of an increase of only Ecu25 million, demanded Ecu100 million and raised up the commission's Ecu50 million proposal. It is a vindication too of the EU's conciliation process, which turned potentially wounding confrontation into positive compromise.

Despite their summertime blues, many British universities, too deeply enmeshed in Socrates/Erasmus partnerships to play it alone, have confirmed their applications for funding. More than 100 additional institutions across the EU have joined.

But Edith Cresson, the commissioner for research, innovation, education and youth, accepts the increase amounts only to 10 per cent over two years. This leaves little room for growth, especially since demand for Socrates involvement far outstrips the total available budget. Growth there will inevitably be. For the remainder of Socrates' term covers the period of accession of up to six new partners - Cyprus and the sounder economies of central and eastern Europe - which are already seeking genuine reciprocal exchanges with universities and other educational institutions in the EU.

Socrates is achieving a volume of academic exchanges that individual institutions could not expect to match through bilateral exchanges. In 1997 alone, for example, there were more than 100,000 Erasmus students on mobility schemes; European activities in 1,480 universities in 18 partner countries, involving almost 30,000 teaching staff and a plethora of transnational projects covering key areas of educational and social concern.

As the presidency passes to Britain, the opportunity to influence the allocations and smooth the path to greater student mobility and a wider appreciation of the European dimension in higher education is there to be seized. In the United Kingdom, the longer-term impact of the Pounds 1,000 tuition fee on courses that incorporate a significant period of study abroad is still unclear.

There is evidence, however, of a worrying fall in the numbers of UK students studying at institutions in other European countries. Perhaps the Socrates/Erasmus deal may help to arrest the decline and ensure that at least some student mobility in Europe will continue, and perhaps grow, in a practical expression of the aim of placing Britain at the heart of Europe.

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