When Europe's electors vote for a new parliament next week, the war in the Balkans, the fate of the euro and the elimination of corruption in Brussels will dominate the agenda. At least in Britain, even these issues are unlikely to offset the anticipated apathy.
But for higher education, Europe has assumed ever greater significance. The enhanced authority of the parliament will be a powerful ally in wresting more resources for student mobility programmes and other initiatives from the European Commission. British universities have been at the forefront of the Erasmus/Socrates initiative, which technically expires in 2000, although British students have yet to show the same enthusiasm as students from other European Union states. The commission regards the programme as the main instrument for the europeanisation of higher education.
Romano Prodi, the new commission president, showed himself an enthusiast for Erasmus in one of his first speeches to the parliament last month when he pointed to the 500,000 students who had already been enabled to study in another member state.
It is a matter for regret, then, that the second phase of Socrates, which extends the programme from 2000 to 2006, failed to meet the May 1 deadline for approval needed to avoid a delayed start. The Leonardo programme for vocational training was hustled through to beat the deadline, but Socrates must now await a new commission and the outcome of next week's elections, before the deadlock between ministers and parliament over funding can be resolved.
This delay means a transitional period during which the current administrative procedure continues unchanged. The new-style decentralised Socrates programme, which has significant potential advantages for the way in which universities manage their mobility programmes in Europe, cannot now be in place before 2001-02 at the earliest.