THE SUBJECT of Europe is rapidly becoming as contentious in British higher education as in politics. Universities and colleges are beginning to view the bureaucratic machinery supporting the mobility of students and staff across the European Union as a waste of time and money.
Such is the level of frustration with the growing demands and dwindling funds of the European Commission's various programmes, particularly Socrates, that some institutions are threatening to drop out unless their calls for change are met.
The EC has already been forced into an about-turn over stringent requirements built into contracts for Socrates money supporting students and staff placements.
After protests from institutions led by a powerful British lobby, the commission dropped clauses that would have allowed it to scrutinise all institutional accounts and claw back any interest earned from EC grants. It has also altered conditions of funding so that 90 per cent of a grant is allocated upfront, rather than just 70 per cent as originally proposed.
Yet even this climbdown has not convinced some universities that the EC holds the key to Europe.
Last week, The THES revealed that Southampton University is considering taking the first step towards building an independent network of campuses across the Continent. Howard Newby, the university's vice chancellor, is looking into a plan to set up a directly controlled "institution" in Barcelona, building on Southampton's toehold in the city and links with institutions there. If the venture takes off, the university would use it as a model for a string of outposts throughout Europe.
Katharine Crouan, head of Winchester School of Art which is now part of Southampton University, has written a paper outlining the benefits of such a move. It could help Southampton rationalise its arrangements with 250 partner institutions in Europe, and get a grip on crucial quality assurance issues. Since the difficulties experienced overseas by Southampton Institute, the university is looking for ways to have direct control over quality assurance of European programmes.
"We see Barcelona as the first of several small, lean, city-based outfits in continental Europe which will help us to concentrate our European effort," Professor Crouan said.
Professor Newby wants to be able to use the Barcelona campus as a centre for European collaborative research, an area he feels has been neglected so far by the EC's programmes.
Initial reactions to the plans have been cautious. Annette Kratz, head of the international office at Keele University, was worried that campuses set up by British universities might be like American "island programmes", where students gain a very limited experience of the country where they are placed.
"You could end up ghettoising a lot of British students on European campuses, which is not really what the Socrates programme is trying to achieve. Yes, we are frustrated with the programme, but I am not sure this is the answer," she said.
Liz Wilson, European officer at Manchester University, was worried only the well-off would be able to afford to go.
John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates Erasmus Bureau, said it would be difficult for institutions acting independently to replicate the work of the Socrates programme unless they had a base in every EU member state. "You might do something really super in Barcelona, but you would have to go much further than that if you want to have all the elements of the Socrates programme," he said.
Professor Crouan said the Barcelona campus would be planned jointly with other institutions in the city, and would not be a ghetto. It was a way of addressing many of the concerns now being voiced by British institutions over the limitations of the EC's programmes.
"There is a danger that the UK, which has been one of the biggest participants in Europe under Erasmus, is now going to let its investment in the European ideal lapse. People are looking for support for a wide range of activities like curriculum development and research, not just the sending and receiving of students," she said.