Time flies when you're trying to reform

October 11, 1996

Western European, particularly British, university involvement in the transition process in eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union has been one of the minor success stories in an otherwise patchy episode.

The Tempus programme was adopted by the European Union Council of Ministers in May 1990, to regenerate universities in the lately communist states of Eastern Europe and aid transition. Its scope was widened to include the former Soviet Union when ministers extended the programme for a further four years from the 1994/95 academic year.

In its first five years, 21,000 students were involved in mobility programmes, 88 per cent from the east, a minor but significant figure compared to the 500,000 who have studied in another European country since 1980, mainly under the Erasmus programme, and the 200,000 currently studying in another member state.

Other initiatives aimed to bring the administration of the intensely bureaucratic Eastern-bloc universities at least up to best practice in the West, and to develop academic curricula needed for the East's embryonic market economies.

Reform of a university system designed around the rigidities of centrally planned socialist economies was recognised as a necessary precondition for this. For example, Russia retains five or six specialised "railway universities" geared to producing generations of knowledgeable railway workers and quite valid if the Russian railway system was to remain unchanged for the next 50 years. The systems were not designed to retrain adults in the middle of their working lives. The signs of change, partly as a result of Tempus-style initiatives, are now beginning to emerge. Observers see a (welcome) trend to fund institutions according to student numbers rather than the staff they employ as evidence of a more market-driven approach.

Some institutions now admit they misread the situation. As the Bocconi University of Milan's business school found when it set up a management training school at the then Leningrad University, objectives had to be revised in the face of reality. The plan was to train Western executives in what was to become St Petersburg for the expanding Russian market. But as transition faltered the Western multinationals lost interest and the focus shifted to training local faculty to teach a local clientele. The lecturers the school produced were so much in demand that in one year the new institute lost 100 per cent of its staff to other employers. Bocconi was thinking of pulling out but received Tempus support to develop an MBA programme.

The overall impression from both the partner states and the "donor" institutions is that that lesson has been learned by the people most directly involved. The surface has only now begun to be scratched and much more remains to be done.

But the rules which govern Tempus-Phare, and especially its equivalent for the countries of the former Soviet Union, Tempus-Tacis, are likely to slow the trickle-down process rather than to accelerate it. In the Tacis countries, for example, joint projects are limited to one university in the partner country and up to three in the West. The receiving university is likely to hang on to its knowledge rather than weaken its enhanced strength in the new education market place by passing it on to potentially rival institutions. Even without such rivalry the restriction implies that only a limited number of institutions in the new economies will be able to take part in Tempus projects.

A speaker at a conference in Brussels last week, backed by the European Training Foundation, which took over administration of Tempus in 1995, summed it up: "Universities are like mirrors in which you can watch a whole country. The development of the university cannot be separated from that of the country. You cannot expect to achieve good results overnight."

The limit of three years for Tempus projects is too restrictive. But governments and bureaucrats expect to see rapid results; long-term funding is a luxury few agencies can afford. And there are signs that the Western academics involved, altruistic enthusiasts with limited support rather than aggressive entrepreneurs, are wearying of the EU's legendary bureaucracy on top of the legacy of East European communism.

Peter de Rooij, director of the ETF, feels the process guarantees an unbiased decision on the best projects and the right partners. "We try to be flexible and to speed up things . . .There is a lot of awareness in the EU of value for money. Whatever projects are implemented and supported it is taxpayers' money."

Expectations in the Eastern countries have properly been raised by dissemination of the results of Tempus programmes. The issue is whether they can be met against a background of the need to meet tight deadlines and bureaucratic monitoring.

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