The commission's loss could be the UK's gain

March 26, 1999

Ther demise of the EC could help Britain towards its higher education goals, argues Juliet Lodge

The European Commission's resignation was greeted in some quarters as a gleeful proclamation of the European Union's demise. At the very least, its wings would be clipped, faceless technocrats trounced and arcane practices replaced by good (aka British) practice. No more fraud. No more federalism. No more Europe.

While many might hope that the resignation has irrevocably weakened the commission and the EU, in all probability it has strengthened the European Parliament and the commission itself.

Above all, the EU is a political system with vices and virtues. That is not to pardon clientelism and nepotism, but to recall that they are not uncommon in some member states and to underscore the fact that the EU wishes to combat this by vigorously promoting equal opportunity and advancement on the basis of fair, open competition and merit.

National governments have ducked the issue of making the commission more readily accountable and subject to appropriate political controls. The European Parliament's powers are imperfect - it has been difficult for MEPs to muster the requisite two-thirds majority of all members to force the commission's resignation. Moreover, as the indictment of aspects of the Leonardo programme stresses, parliament has been denied information that would enable it to exercise control more effectively.

What better way could there have been in the run-up to the June elections, to focus attention on the parliament and deflect the customary bad press it attracts? What better way to present the parliament as the custodian, guardian and defender of the kind of political morals, values, norms and behaviour that should characterise the EU, as it enlarges, as a bastion of western liberal democratic practice? Openness, democracy, accountability and responsiveness have become meaningful in a way that they were not before.

In this spirit, it is time to reassess higher education's place in Europe. A persistent and unresolved imbalance, for example, is that British universities are net importers of students under EU-funded programmes. The way in which student numbers are funded and capped in the UK seriously limits opportunities to all and restricts innovative programmes that ultimately would benefit the country.

It would be helpful if the British government were to undertake a broader review of the place of European educational exchanges. We have been trying to square the circle for too long. The programmes do benefit our students, providing invaluable experience, especially for those seeking Euro-level careers (we retain an interest in raising the number of British people holding commission posts, for instance).

We must, however, guard against the Euro-year abroad being prohibitively expensive. We must also guard against the UK being seen as excessively restrictive in admitting students from other EU states. If a purely financial model of their value persists, much will be lost. The opportunity to study in another European country is coveted and valuable. Britain cannot afford to see its students denied opportunities readily grasped by its partners.

All EU states are committed to increasing access to lifelong learning, education and training. The parliament and commission may well be in a position to help deliver them. Given the indictment of the management of aspects of the EU's education programmes (such as Leonardo, Agenor, and the Technical Assistance Office), it is likely that MEPs will be especially vigilant to correct deficiencies and promote improvement.

The parliament was given neither timely nor sufficient information to control Leonardo effectively. Apart from better management, a clear perception of and response to problems besetting the education agenda is needed in future.

A parliament whose voice has to be listened to, as now it surely must be, is in an enviable position to redefine priorities. An incoming commission must not only secure its confidence, but retain it. Education and training may benefit as a result, and spending priorities need re-appraisal.

Adequate resourcing is essential to advance and sustain transfrontier student mobility, and research and development programmes. But neither should be seen as a peculiar responsibility of the EU. MEPs demand information and follow it up rigorously. They should open a dialogue with national parliaments and relevant sub-national bodies to take this agenda forward at all levels. This would assert a common agenda and ensure that those with power exercise it for the common good in an open, democratic, accountable, just and legitimate manner.

Juliet Lodge is director of the Centre for European studies at the University of Leeds.

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