The European Commission is considering a dramatic expansion of its flagship Erasmus Mundus student exchange programme weeks before the deadline for universities to submit bids to be selected for the first round of the project.
European leaders want the €230 million (£155 million) initiative to rival the Fulbright programme by the end of its first phase in 2008 and there are firm plans for up to 5,000 scholarships for students from non-European Union countries to join its core masters programmes. A further 4,200 students from the EU are expected to receive grants to study in third countries as part of the masters programme.
But the external affairs directorate in Brussels is expected to fund additional scholarships for out-going students, concentrating on Asian nations that are not members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The EC is to set up an expert group to advise on how to make the expanded EU more attractive to international students in the increasingly competitive higher education market.
The plan envisages 90 to 100 European masters programmes offered by consortia of at least three universities in three countries - at least two of them from the enlarged EU, the three remaining accession states (Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey), Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Only EU students will be eligible for out-going scholarships.
Universities have until the end of this month to submit proposals for implementation in 2004-05. Development of Erasmus Mundus is proposed to take place in parallel with convergence through the Bologna process, designed to simplify Europe's higher education systems for would-be international students.
Ingrid Ridler of the Erasmus Mundus Programme in Brussels told representatives of UK universities this week: "Europe will become a global political reference only if it becomes an educational and political one too."
Wendy Davies, pro-provost for European affairs at University College London, warned of difficulties confronting UK universities eager to engage in the process - including quality assurance and tuition fees - which she described as "silly practical problems" that heads of institutions found easy to dismiss but had to be resolved.
The UK practice of double-marking and external examination was foreign to many other systems. "Creating common ground in this kind of situation is not easy," Professor Davies said.