Select Committee on European Communities Twenty-Seventh Report


  187.    The Committee notes that the present programme, in an area where national differences are profound, has successfully extended forms of university cooperation which are of benefit to the country as well as to universities and their staff and students.

  188.    We are convinced by the arguments for the Community programmes as an investment. We consider that they work to the benefit of the populations of the participating countries. We also note that demand for these programmes far outstrips the resources.

  189.    We believe that to propose ambitious programmes without commensurate funding would be to build castles in the air, and would produce disillusionment.

  190.    We therefore call on the Government to support proposals to provide sufficient funds to sustain a worthwhile and expanding programme.

  191.    The Committee is persuaded that the Socrates-Erasmus programme benefits the European Community as a whole; individual countries within the Community; universities; and the students who take part in the programme. We therefore consider that the programme should be an important and positive aspect of the United Kingdom's higher education institutional strategy.

  192.    The Committee views exchanges under Erasmus as a crucial part of the international dimension of higher education. Not only do students going abroad benefit from their experience, but British universities benefit from the presence there of Erasmus students from other countries. As cultures, economies and businesses have become increasingly globalised, so too have academic disciplines. The international dimension of higher education is therefore something in which the Committee considers to be of great value, and to be encouraged.

  193.    The Committee is concerned at the lack of coordination of the United Kingdom's strategy towards Socrates-Erasmus. The Committee believes that a more coherent strategy is a necessary step in redressing the imbalance of flow by encouraging British students to take part in the programme. We therefore recommend that the Government should discuss with the CVCP and the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council how such coordination might best be achieved, and that they should then act on the outcome of such discussions in order to ensure a more positive and strategic approach to the programmes within the United Kingdom.

  194.    The Committee is concerned about the imbalance of flow of Erasmus students in and out of the United Kingdom only insofar as that imbalance reflects a reluctance on the part of British students to take part in the programmes. British universities are fortunate to attract a high number of incoming Erasmus students. The Committee recommends that action be taken to address the issues which prevent the United Kingdom from sending a similar number of students abroad under the programme.

  195.    In particular, the Committee recommends that urgent action be taken to improve language teaching in schools and universities. We note with concern the falling number of foreign language assistants in state schools in recent years. We note also the Minister's acknowledgment that "we need to work very hard to recruit more people to teach French, German, Spanish" in secondary schools. We recommend that the Government should take immediate steps to find ways to improve the teaching of all major foreign languages in secondary schools, and to encourage the use of language assistants in the state sector. In addition, we call upon the Government to give further consideration to the teaching of languages in primary schools.

  196.    We recommend the provision of intensive language courses in universities to enable students (in particular students who are not language students) to take up opportunities to study abroad. We recommend that HEFCE incentive funding be used as a source of finance for these courses. We would also welcome an increase in the use of language assistants in universities, as well as in schools.

  197.    The Committee draws the attention of the House to the long-term benefits which accrue to the United Kingdom from hosting foreign students at British universities.

  198.    We do not believe that the United Kingdom should seek compensation for hosting such a large number of Erasmus students. While we accept that universities hosting these students incur costs, we also acknowledge that other countries incur greater costs of translation and language training than the United Kingdom does. Furthermore, we consider that the way to deal with the imbalance of flow is not to apply for compensation, but to decrease the imbalance by encouraging more British students to take up Erasmus places.

  199.    Although we do not believe that the United Kingdom should seek compensation, we do acknowledge that the funding structures in higher education in the United Kingdom give rise to perverse effects, so that British universities would incur a financial cost by taking Erasmus students, even if the inflow of students matched the outflow exactly.

  200.    We welcome the Government's intention of waiving tuition fees for out-going Erasmus students. However, we note that funding structures at present still make it more attractive for universities to take third-country students, rather than Erasmus students and other EU students.

  201.    We recommend that the Government should undertake or commission a study of funding mechanisms of British higher education courses, with the intention of producing recommendations as to how to eliminate this perverse effect of the current funding arrangements on European higher education activity.

  202.    The Committee welcomes the Commission's commitment to widening access, but suggests that the aspiration will be effective only if there is greater flexibility in the programme. The Committee also believes that the effectiveness of access needs to be evaluated.

  203.    The Committee recommends that the Commission should plan for more short courses and summer schools but that these should not be at the expense of the traditional academic Erasmus study scheme.

  204.    The Committee welcomes the Commission's special provision for disabled students, but notes the very small numbers of disabled students who are able to take up places as a result of this provision. The Committee recommends that the new programmes should make specific provision for disabled students, framed in such a way as to make it possible for disabled students to take up places on the Erasmus programme.

  205.    The Committee recommends that the Commission's new monitoring procedures should cover access issues. We agree with the Minister that such monitoring should provide information on gender, socio-economic background, race, and ethnic group. Access for people with disabilities should also be monitored.

  206.    The Committee notes the agreement that the principle of mobility is crucial to the success of new programmes. But we also consider that however welcome the principle, the practicalities need to be addressed. Successful outcomes depend on adequate funding and on more flexible structures.

  207.    The Committee recommends that the physical mobility of students and academic staff be a priority in the new programme. The Committee recommends that the Commission maintain its existing programmes, but that the flexible approach recommended above in relation to short courses and summer schools be extended to meet the needs of teachers as well as other mobile groups, such as mature students and postgraduates.

  208.    The Committee notes the pressures for the programme to diversify. The result of diversification would be that the period spent abroad would not necessarily be integrated with the course at the student's home university. We feel that this would be weakening one of the best aspects of the programme and we reassert the importance of co-operation between universities to give recognition the period of study abroad, whether or not such recognition takes place within the framework of the European Credit Transfer system.

  209.    The Committee agrees that the priority of the programme is mobility, rather than the fostering of minority languages. We therefore consider it legitimate to target English language provision within the programme, as well as targeting minority languages.

  210.    The Committee recognises the tension between giving priority to minority languages in the programme and responding to embedded student preferences in exchanges. However, we would like to see more language teaching built into the programme, both to promote cultural exchange and to encourage study in a foreign language.

  211.    The Committee therefore recommends that the Commission build incentive payments for language devinto the new programme's funding.

  212.    We also recommend that, while doing all it can to preserve the viability of minority languages, the new programme should recognise and respond to the overwhelming demand for English language courses. The growing trend to use English as the lingua franca in the academic world should not be ignored.

  213.    The Committee notes that the introduction of the institutional contract has sharpened the European strategy of many higher education institutions, and to that extent, the Committee considers the institutional contract to have been a success.

  214.    However, the Committee notes the concern of those directly concerned with implementing the programmes, that the introduction of institutional contracts has weakened the goodwill and commitment of university teachers and researchers which were the great strengths of the earlier programme. We acknowledge that activities needed to be thought of within an overall strategy, but it is vital that European university co-operation builds on the strength of academic freedom. The new programme must maintain and encourage academic co-operation.

  215.    The Committee therefore recommends that the Commission abandons the strategy of keeping academic cooperation networks separate from the institutional contracts. We recommend instead that academic cooperation should be built in at the heart of each institutional contract.

  216.    The Committee agrees with the importance of seeing universities as local and regional poles of development, and supports the Commission's endeavours to involve other parties such as employers, parents and social and voluntary organisations.

  217.    The Committee welcomes the Commission's intention of integrating the new higher education programme with other Community programmes in the fields of education, training and youth.

  218.    The Committee welcomes the Commission's proposals to decentralise the management system. In the Committee's view, an increased role for the national agency would increase the efficiency and flexibility of the programme, thus widening access to students currently unable to participate, and would help to encourage students not to drop their Erasmus places.

  219.    As our enquiry progressed it became increasingly clear to us that in terms of UK education policy, Europe can no longer be seen as an add-on. The European dimension of our own national education strategy can not be ignored.


  220.    The Committee believes that the matters considered in this Report raise important questions to which the attention of the House should be drawn, and we make this Report to the House for debate.

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