The school of hard edges

January 9, 1998

Tony Blair's European presidency is a testing time for education, argues Anne Corbett

TONY BLAIR was recently drawn by Le Monde's cartoonist in Full Monty undress, protected where he needed it by the European flag - full monty Britain boasting that it is now fully European.

One of Mr Blair's two aims, as the United Kingdom starts its six-month European Union presidency, is to make the "new" Britain acceptable to the rest of Europe. The other half of the equation: to make the EU more acceptable to the British.

The fate of the higher education agenda will show how successfully these aims work out. Britain has worked hard to take advantage of the Community's "changing of the guard". But it can do so only within the limits of a policy-setting process designed to produce - increasingly in conjunction with the European Parliament - legislation applicable in all member states.

Outside the single currency and enlargement issues that fall to this calendar, the general British spin is "Make Europe Work for The People". Britain wants more European-level action that directly affects individuals - more effective collaboration on employment and skills training, more action to combat cross-border crime, more help for the environment.

However, the government - and it insists other governments support this - wants to deal with education at the Council of Ministers level in an employment-dominated context. Under the British presidency, the relevant sectoral council meetings will not include one exclusive to education. It is to share its agenda with social affairs. "A bit more hard-edged" is the phrase seeping out of Whitehall.

The biggest of the big education ideas is "employability". As defined by the Department for Education and Employment, there are six policy strands: promoting excellence in schools, lifelong learning, tackling unemployment, working for social inclusion and equality of opportunity, fair minimum standards in employment and the encouragement of partnerships as a method.

It is possible that UK ministers have rallied other education and employment ministers to this employment-dominated approach. The Council of Ministers allows incoming presidencies to prepare for difficult issues by an inquisitorial process of confidential bilateral meetings with fellow ministers, at which it extracts a "confession", or statement of bargaining positions. The presidency goes away with the thumbscrews that will produce compromises to reach the required consensus, even where decisions, as in education, are taken by qualified majority vote.

Nevertheless, Britain's ability to effect change will be constrained. Once British ministers are in the council driving seats, they are supposed to be chauffeurs rather than bosses, the servants of the council, not its masters.

The main item for the British presidency is a commission document preparing the draft legal instrument for the successor to the Socrates programme from January 1, 2000. Published as guidelines (Towards a Europe of Knowledge, COM (97)563 final, available via the Europa web site) ministers will discuss the document informally in March and make their decisions in June. The council input at this stage - there are many others which includes the European Parliament's decision, the Council of the Regions' opinion, the commission's own feedback and a second reading - will be based on reactions to the commission policy proposals, which themselves have already been through an advisory committee network and a lobby process.

For the past few years, the commission, like Britain, has used the term "employability". It calls for closer integration on programmes for education, training and youth. Having hammered us over the years with the impact of the globalised economy and information technology, and Europe's need of human capital, the commission now has a strong focus on the multiple roles of education and how these can be translated strategically, and compatibly with the Maastricht Treaty.

The commission document outlines policies for knowledge, policies for citizenship and policies for competence. It builds on schemes like the Erasmus student mobility programme and envisages its extension outside higher education. Lifelong learning (incorporated into the Treaty of Amsterdam) is no longer a simple add-on. Information technology is integrated. It specifically sees simpler procedures, in response to much national criticism in the case of Socrates (which subsumed Erasmus). Maastricht allowed the novelty that the community can think of education in terms of people rather than as quasi-labour, as required by the earlier Treaty of Rome. Coming after the commission's work on quality assurance, initially deemed outside its remit, but on which agreement is emerging, the 1998 agenda is a measure of the extent to which member states accept an element of Europeanisation integrated into state-education relations.

Will this and the other issues on the council agenda get the discussion they deserve? The debate is secret. But former participants agree that by the time a document reaches the council, discussion is disappointing. Members are politicians rather than policy experts. In some cases their EU civil service specialists are so marginalised within the national ministry that contact is only fleeting. By the time ministers take the chair for "their" particular council, the important input is seen as coming from the Sir Humphrey figures of the Committee of Permanent Representatives of the Member States. These are "the real chaps", says one ex-minister. In such circumstances many former ministers reserve their fondest memories for the lunches and informal session at which they have encountered rising political stars.

It is matter of record that some councils impede the process that they are supposed to advance. The 1980s saw several difficulties, for example when British ministers were under orders from the coordinating cabinet committee to rebuff all proposals for studies, pilot projects or other "tin openers" for larger community expenditure or greater community power. In 1986, under a British presidency, the education council all but sabotaged the Erasmus proposal. While Mrs Thatcher was quarrelling with commission president Jacques Delors on the main stage at the London European Council, it had to be kicked back into play in a corridor by some nifty Irish and French footwork.

Old habits die hard. But this time it is surely convergence, rather than conflict, that should be the order of the day.

Anne Corbett is researching her doctorate on the Erasmus programme at the London School of Economics.

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