European student mobility is not at the top of Britain's higher education agenda. It is doubtful if, for most policy-makers, it merits a place on the agenda at all.
But the significant decline in United Kingdom Erasmus student mobility in the past two years merits a considered response. What seemed to be a blip in the growth rate in 1995/96 has become a substantial decline in 1996/97, which on a year-on-year basis could exceed 10 per cent. It is anticipated that fewer than 11,000 students will have travelled from the UK to other European Union and European Economic Area countries this year. At the same time, 18,000 or more EU/EEA students will have come to the UK.
It is easy to forget that before the advent of Erasmus in 1987, few students other than those studying languages spent part of their undergraduate degree in another European member state. Erasmus has effected a radical change - nearly 85 per cent of Erasmus students are now studying subjects other than language in almost 200 UK institutions.
These simple facts are testimony to success. Staff and most students affirm the benefits, and the impact on individuals and departments. This very success is, however, the source for concern at the decline. With so many institutions participating in so many subjects, with a programme in which the participants overwhelmingly acknowledge the benefits, why are the numbers not larger, and why have they started to decline?
It is puzzling that in spite of the success, the efforts of programme directors, and glowing reports from most students, universities frequently report that UK students have to be persuaded to participate, in contrast to the rest of the EU where programme directors are forced to be selective.
Few UK students have any language training beyond 16 and, although more institutions are offering "languages for all", the sense of inadequacy in a foreign language may still be a deterrent. A further impediment can be the difficulty of fitting a study period abroad into a three-year degree while assuring students that their final result will not be impaired.
Increasingly, finance is reported to be deterring students from taking on the extra costs of study in another country. Finally, a climate of Euro-scepticism and uncertainty about the European future may have had an impact. Certainly in the period leading to and just after the European single market legislation, there was a surge of interest in European programmes which may indicate that a positive political and media climate stimulates demand.
Whatever the explanation, there does not appear to be the same sense of motivation in the UK as in many other member states. Whatever views we have about the European Union and its future, there can be little doubt that the UK will continue to be increasingly involved in every way with all the European countries.
It should be a matter of considerable national concern that so few of our teachers, leaders, managers, technicians, salespeople, business representatives and politicians can communicate effectively in another European language, and that even fewer have actually spent any period of time, other than holidays, in another European country. On the other hand, increasingly, students in other member states can communicate effectively in at least one and frequently two or more languages in addition to their mother tongue.
One of the most effective, cheapest and durable ways of ensuring that the UK has people who can communicate, cooperate and compete with their peers in other EU and EEA countries is the stimulation of student mobility.
If outgoing numbers decline then it may be necessary to restrict incoming EU/EEA students. These students foster the European dimension and contribute substantially to the academic and social life of UK institutions. Their experience can produce long-term benefits for the UK as they reach senior positions. A number of the most able remain to pursue doctoral studies. Reducing the incoming number could contribute to an impoverishment of the intellectual and social environment.
The promotion of the European dimension for more students and for universities as genuine international teaching, learning and research institutions is not satisfied by the relative success of Erasmus's first ten years. We have not finished with student mobility.
With debate on Socrates 2 beginning, it is essential to recognise the critical role played by student mobility. In conjunction with teacher mobility, student mobility has the greatest impact on all aspects of the life of universities. For the individual, it probably has a more durable effect than virtually any other aspect of university experience. For the country it represents considerable added value at remarkably low cost. It should be high on the national agenda if we are serious about being "at the heart of Europe".
John Reilly is director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council.