Select Committee on European Communities Second Report


Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee to Baroness Blackstone, Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment

  The Committee prepared a Report on Student Mobility in the European Community[13] in 1998. In taking evidence on this subject, we became concerned at the low level of UK student participation in the Socrates-Erasmus programme, and at the size of the imbalance between the UK's outward and inward student mobility. We concluded that the imbalance is a problem "insofar as [it] reflects a reluctance on the part of British students to take part in the programmes" (paragraph 194).

  The Committee's concern has been reawakened by an article in the Times Higher Educational Supplement (16 April 1999), which stated that the imbalance was greater than ever in 1997-98. A memorandum received from Mr John Reilly, the director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council, suggested that there had been a further absolute fall in UK participation in 1998-99 (final figures will be available in November); the imbalance will remain at around its 1997-98 level.

  It is clear that the reluctance of British students to take part in the Socrates-Erasmus programme continues to grow. In the Government's response to the Report, certain measures were promised to help overcome this reluctance, and the Committee wishes to know what progress has been made in effecting these:

    (1)  improved publicity was promised, and it was envisaged that the introduction of the Socrates II programme in January 2000 would be anticipated by "a high profile event with a Ministerial speech" in mid-1999. We understand from Mr Reilly that the Commission re-launch is likely to take place in Portugal in March 2000, and that the UK re-launch is unlikely to take place before May. There is clearly a danger that the opportunity offered by the introduction of Socrates II for stimulating interest in the programme will be lost. What progress has been made in improving publicity for the programme, and what plans are in place for the re-launch of Socrates II?

    (2)  It is generally acknowledged that UK students are deterred from participating in the programme by their shortcomings in mastery of foreign languages. In its Report the Committee recommended that "urgent action be taken to improve language teaching in schools and universities", and noted with concern "the falling number of foreign language assistants in state schools" (paragraph 195). In its response the Government noted that the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges was "taking action to arrest and reverse this decline". What progress has the Central Bureau made, and what steps has the Government taken to encourage universities to improve their use of language assistants? Has the Government made any progress towards the long-term objective of improving language teaching in primary schools?

  The Committee would welcome answers to these questions. We will also be keeping abreast of the progress of the Socrates-Erasmus programme. We may at some stage decide that a follow-up report would be desirable.

  Another issue, affecting the future of the entire programme, has been drawn to the attention of the Committee by an article in the Times Educational Supplement of 29 October. It appears that the disagreement between the Council and the European Parliament over the scale of funding for Socrates II has not yet been settled. Our understanding is that the Conciliation Committee is to meet on 9 November, but that if a compromise is not reached then there is a danger that the programme could collapse.

  We concluded in our Report that the programme is an "investment", which "benefits the European Community as a whole; individual countries within the Community; universities; and the students who take part in the programme" (paragraph 191). The Government response endorsed this conclusion. We also noted that "to propose ambitious programmes without commensurate funding would be to build castles in the air" (paragraph 189). While not wishing to make a precise judgement on the appropriate level of funding, we urge the Government both to show flexibility in its negotiations with the European Parliament and to encourage other Member States to be equally flexible, so as to ensure the survival of the programme.

4 November 1999

Letter from Baroness Blackstone, Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  Thank you for your letter of 4 November 1999 expressing the Select Committee's concern about the participation levels of UK students in the current Socrates-Erasmus Programme and asking about the arrangements for publicity for the next phase of the Socrates Programme.

  I should like to comment first on the position of student participation in Erasmus. It is too early for any measures taken since the Committee's proceedings to be reflected in current participation rates. The current imbalance is due in part to the attractiveness of UK institutions to students from the EU and the opportunity to learn in English. Although the imbalance was greater in 1997-98, there was actually a small increase over the previous year in the numbers of UK students participating (at about the rate to be expected of our population as a proportion of the EU total). The absolute fall predicted for 1998-99 is clearly a cause for concern and we recognise that there are likely to be many reasons for this. However, we are far from complacent about the situation and have asked the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council to consider ways of improving the situation.

  Obviously, the Department also needs to play a part and one of the measures taken already includes the revision by my Department of our free booklet, The European Choice, which informs potential students of the positive benefits to them of participating in Erasmus exchanges. We have sent out over 42,000 copies of this booklet for potential students, and it is also available on the Department's website. We are currently obtaining customer feedback to see what further improvements can be made. The UK Socrates-Erasmus Council also produce a booklet entitled Unlock your potential with an Erasmus Experience. They have reviewed the information that they provide for students and they have conducted a number of promotional activities designed to encourage UK participation.

  You asked about the progress made by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, to encourage the use of language assistants. In consultation with specialist modern languages advisers and its sister organisation, the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, the Central Bureau has produced promotional material for all schools and colleges setting out the benefits of foreign language assistants to teachers and students. Currently the Bureau is seeking to refresh the programme by means of a revised marketing campaign.

  There has, however, been a disappointing decline in the number of UK modern foreign language students applying to be English language assistants abroad. Again, there are likely to be a number of reasons for this, including a wider range of opportunities for language undergraduates wishing to spend time in another country.

  In an attempt to tackle this issue, the Central Bureau, with support from the Teacher Training Agency and St Martin's College, Lancaster, are now working together to provide induction and in-service support for students appointed as English language assistants. The aim of this strategy is to encourage more students to apply to train to become teachers of modern languages in this country. The Bureau is also considering the possibility of a computerised application process and is examining with colleagues in France the idea of validating experience as a language assistant towards the development of a portfolio of qualifications.

  You also asked about the improvement of language teaching in primary schools. Practical help is to be given to primary schools in teaching foreign languages under a project announced in March this year by Charles Clarke, the then Minister for Schools Standards. It is managed on behalf of the Department by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

  Over two years the project will aim to develop high quality curriculum materials for teachers, develop and disseminate models of good practice, establish a network of practitioners making particular use of information and communication technology, and review and co-ordinate training for teachers of modern foreign languages in primary schools. The project aims to engage the widest possible range of partners in language education, so as to raise the profile of primary languages, and to bring coherence to a field where practice varies considerably.

  Finally, I should like to return to the question of the implementation of the second phase of the Socrates programme. The conciliation process which was applied to the decision has now been completed and it is likely that the decision will be formally adopted within the next week or two. This means that we can push ahead with our plans to promote the new programme within the UK.

  The Commission is planning to undertake a high profile launch of all three new programmes: Socrates; Leonardo da Vinci and Youth for Europe in Lisbon in March 2000. The UK launch of the Socrates programme will take place shortly afterwards. The Central Bureau and UK Socrates-Erasmus Council are working together on the plans for a launch event, which will then be supported by a number of seminars and workshops throughout the country. We intend to use this as a platform to raise the profile of the programme among institutions and potential participants by focusing on the real benefits that participation can bring to raising standards, broadening horizons and employability. I would be pleased to send you information about the launch plans in the new year when more of the detail is in place.

8 December 1999

13   27th Report, Session 1997-98, HL Paper 116. Back

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