Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


Letter from Bill Rammell MP, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 4 November,[204] from which I am pleased to note that the Committee broadly welcomes the Commission's proposals for a European Quality Charter for Mobility.

  We share your view that the proposed guidelines should be clear, realistic and flexible; but most importantly, that these should not be over-prescriptive and place unrealistic burdens upon individual Member States, nor lead to excessive bureaucracy. The text of the Recommendation is still in the process of being finalised through Education Committee. During the UK Presidency, we ensured that sufficient time was allocated for discussions, which have been going well, and will now continue under the Austrian Presidency, with a view to finalising the text. We have already been able to secure some changes that reinforce the voluntary nature of the Charter. In addition, comments from Member States have been reflected in revised versions of the text, particularly with regard to respecting the need to avoid over-prescriptiveness and excessive bureaucracy when recommending the proposed guidelines. The Charter will be discussed further at Education Committee during March and April. It will then be considered by Coreper on 3 May, prior to possible political agreement or possibly even a First Reading deal with the European Parliament at the May Education Council.

  In response to your specific points, Articles 149 and 150 of the Treaty recognise the responsibility of Member States for the content of teaching and organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity, and for the content and organisation of vocational training. However, since Article 149 focuses on development and co-operation in relating to teaching and dissemination of the languages of the Member States rather than harmonisation, we have managed to secure changes to the text so that it is more appropriate for Member States to decide what linguistic preparation and support are required. We think this better reflects Member States' subsidiarity, as linguistic preparation would only apply if certain countries thought it appropriate. It also reinforces the voluntary nature of the Charter, since Member States would be free to implement elements of the guidelines as they choose. During discussions at Education Committees, this issue was raised by several Member States, who felt the initial text was too prescriptive, and in some cases language preparation prior to departure might not be appropriate. Moreover, it was noted that this provision might cause significant problems for some smaller countries. The re-drafted text therefore indicates that such support should be provided "wherever possible".

  In addition, as provision of logistical support does not fall within the scope of Articles 149 and 150, we have managed to secure some improvements in the text, to indicate that where necessary any logistical support provided to participants might include information on, inter alia, travel arrangements, accommodation, residence or work permits, social security, leaving it up to Member States themselves to decide what is appropriate.

  Likewise, whilst we share your concerns about competence creep of the Commission's powers if the Recommendation is adopted, we think this is unlikely to happen, as again, Member States would not be required to take any action but would be free to implement discrete parts of the guidelines, in line with their national needs and priorities. Other Member States had similar concerns in this area during Education Committee negotiations, and there have been several changes in the text of the Recommendation to reflect these. For example, the reference to respecting Member States' competences now features more prominently in the Introduction to the Charter. There was also concern that the suggestion to provide mentors was too prescriptive, with the result that the text now reflects the concept of providing a mentoring scheme, rather than providing a mentor per se. Member States also called for more clarity as to who was responsible for setting out commitments and responsibilities to all participants. There was a general agreement that some of this responsibility should lie with the National Agencies responsible for the EU education, training and youth mobility programmes, whilst at the same time noting the need to avoid too much bureaucracy, which could make participation appear less attractive for sending and hosting organisations, and participants.

  You asked about the procedure for taking the outcomes of expert Working Groups and translating them into Commission proposals. At the Stockholm European Council in March 2001, EU Education Ministers set out 13 key objectives in education and training across Europe. Following this report, a Detailed Work Programme was agreed, with eight expert groups being set up. Between them, they took forward work on the 13 objectives. The outcomes were fed into the Joint Interim Report on progress adopted by EU Education Ministers in February 2004, and then presented to the 2004 Spring European Council. The Report called for a common set of references and principles in the field of education and training, to promote good quality mobility within education and training systems throughout the EU by 2010. The UK was represented on most of these groups by policy experts from this Department and the Scottish Executive, as well as experts from external organisations, including education associations both in England and in Scotland. Officials from the Joint International Unit oversaw the work of the groups, and kept in close contact with the UK experts, consulting policy colleagues both from DfES and other government departments on discrete issues arising from the working groups.

  The Working Group looking at Quality in Mobility was one of the groups set up by the Commission. Part of its remit was to contribute to the development of European policy within the framework of the work programme on the follow-up of the Lisbon Objectives. The aim was to increase the quality of mobility by setting out a common European set of principles, to be implemented by Member States on a voluntary basis. The Commission's draft Quality Charter for Mobility came from the work of this group.

  The Commission's discussion paper on Principles on Quality in Educational Mobility, presented to the Informal meeting of EU Education Ministers in Rotterdam in July 2004, included a draft statement of principles, which formed the basis for the subsequent Mobility Charter. Ministers concluded that quality of mobility played an important role in achieving the Lisbon goals, and that the Commission discussion paper should form the basis for measuring quality within the new education and training programmes, to include elements such as language learning, knowledge of cultural characteristics, guidance activities and recognition of credits gained during a period of mobility. In the light of the Rotterdam outcomes, where Ministers agreed a basic set of principles to support quality in mobility, and the work from the expert group on Quality in Mobility, we are content that there has been sufficient consultation before the Commission published its Recommendation for a European Quality Charter for Mobility.

  The New Programmes Steering Group, set up by my Department, includes various stakeholders involved in the current education and training programmes, and will be taking account of the principles behind the mobility charter in the implementation of the new Programmes. The practical experience of those in the Steering Group will inform our negotiations and help us to ensure that the needs and expectations of programme participants are the main consideration in the Recommendation.

11 January 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Bill Rammell MP

  Thank you for your letter dated 11 January which was considered by Sub-Committee G on 9 February.

  We are grateful for your very thorough report on the progress made in developing this Proposal. We are glad that the Government has taken account of our concerns over competence, subsidiarity and the need for clear, more realistic and flexible guidelines which are not over-prescriptive or place undue burdens on individual Member States. It is good to see that other Member States have supported this line and that several improvements have already been made to the text to reinforce the voluntary nature of the Charter. We hope that further progress will be made with this approach as negotiations continue.

  We take your point that subsidiary must be respected so far as the responsibility of Member States for language preparation is concerned in this non-binding exercise. But we would remind you of the findings of our Inquiry Report on the EU Integrated Action Programme for Life-long Learning that the poor state of language capability in this country is a serious barrier to mobility. We would not want the adoption of the phrase "wherever possible" to be seen as diluting the Government's responsibility for ensuring that British students and trainees are given adequate language preparation to enable them to take full advantage of mobility opportunities.

  Thank you for your clarification about the extent of the consultation over the recommendations of the expert Working Groups and in preparations for Council discussion. We are glad to note your view that this consultation has been sufficient and to know that the Government is continuing to consult interested parties.

  We also note that the Charter is expected to be considered by COREPER on 3 May in preparation for the possibility of political agreement, or perhaps a First Reading deal at the European Parliament, at the May Education Council. We will continue to hold this document under scrutiny in the meantime and look forward to a progress report on your negotiations in good time before the COREPER meeting.

13 February 2006

Letter from Bill Rammell MP to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 13 February about the proposed European Quality Charter for Mobility.

  We are confident that the voluntary nature of the Charter will be maintained. We shall continue to press for this during forthcoming discussions at Education Committee, along with other Member States who are also keen to ensure that the Charter is seen as a voluntary tool for use when implementing the new Integrated Lifelong Learning Programme. At the meeting of the Education Committee on 28 March, the Presidency presented a revised version of the text for the Charter, highlighting the substantial progress that had been made under the UK Presidency. The UK was happy with this new draft, which reflected well the compromises that had been reached at the London Education Committee during our Presidency last December.

  I note your concerns that the reference to "wherever possible" in the Charter in relation to linguistic preparation might be seen as diluting our responsibility for ensuring that students and trainees are sufficiently prepared in language skills to participate in mobility projects. You particularly highlighted this, since your Inquiry Report on the new Integrated Lifelong Learning Programme identified poor language skills as a key barrier to mobility for young people and trainees. However, we consider that this reference provides a sensible balance between offering guidance on good practice, whilst at the same time avoiding over-prescriptiveness. In addition, we would wish to avoid anything which might act as a deterrent for individuals and institutions. It has to be recognised that there are some practical restraints such as the possibility that institutions would not always be able to offer courses in all languages of potential host countries.

  A First Reading deal with the European Parliament, as mentioned in my letter of 11 January, has not been possible. There was some delay in deciding that the Culture Committee of the Parliament should take the lead. A General Approach at the 19 May Council now seems most likely as we understand that the EP will not adopt its first reading of the Recommendation before then. The revised text will shortly be sent to Coreper, for consideration on 3 May.

19 April 2006

Letter from Bill Rammell MP to the Chairman

  My officials have sent you the latest version of this document which was discussed at Coreper on 3 May. I can report that no amendments were made and we are content with the Coreper texts.

9 May 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Bill Rammell MP

  Thank you for your letters dated 19 April and 9 May which were considered by Sub-Committee G on 11 May.

  We are grateful for your assurances about the voluntary nature of the Charter and note that the Government is content with the Presidency's revised text which was accepted by COREPER on 3 May.

  We have carefully considered what that text says about linguistic preparations in the light of the remarks in your letter. On reflection, we take your point that a voluntary document of this nature should strike a sensible balance between offering guidance on good practice whilst avoiding over-prescriptiveness or unduly deterring potential participants. We also accept that institutions will not always be able to offer courses in the relevant languages of potential host countries for the time being, regrettable though that may be.

  We are therefore prepared to accept the revised text as drafted, and to release the document from scrutiny to enable the Government to support the expected General Approach at the Education Council on 19 May.

  In doing so, however, we must reiterate our strong view of the Government's responsibility to take urgent and effective action to remedy the lamentable state of linguistic capability in this country and to make every effort to ensure that British students and trainees are given adequate language preparation to enable them to take full advantage of the mobility opportunities offered by the Life-long Learning programme and similar schemes.

  We look forward to discussing further the practical implications of this at the informal meeting which has already been arranged with Ms Judith Grant and Dr Lid King of your Department on Thursday 25 May to review the progress made by the New Programmes Steering Group in preparing for the implementation of the Life-long Learning programme.

  We also look forward to your further report following the Council meeting.

12 May 2006

204   Correspondence with Ministers, 45th Report of Session 2005-06, HL Paper 243, pp 612-613. Back

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