Select Committee on European Communities Eleventh Report


A. GENERAL POLICY QUESTIONS

26. DRAFT COUNCIL RECOMMENDATION ON EUROPEAN CO-OPERATION IN QUALITY ASSURANCE IN HIGHER EDUCATION (7999/97)

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

  I am writing to inform you of the position on this proposal following the meeting of the Council of Education Ministers on 20 November.

  My Department submitted an Explanatory Memorandum on the Commission's original proposal on 4 June. This noted that the United Kingdom supported co-operation between Member States in higher education and that co-operation between quality assurance agencies was also desirable. It added however that unnecessarily detailed rules might hinder further development and innovation, and that the need for a formal European Quality Assurance Network, as proposed by the Commission, was not yet clear.

  Sub-Committee F considered the Department's Explanatory Memorandum at its meeting on 3 July. It noted the Government's reservations on the proposed legal base for the draft Recommendation. It decided to clear the document from scrutiny but asked to be kept informed of developments.

  The proposal was discussed briefly at the Council of Education Ministers on 26 June, without reaching any conclusions. Discussions among officials were resumed in the Autumn. It became clear that other Member States as well as the UK had concerns about the detail of the proposal, and the need for a formal Euroean Network. Following further discussions details of a revised proposal were circulated to Member States on 17 November.

  At the Council meeting on 20 November it was clear that there was wide support for the revised approach and that it was likely to gain the necessary qualified majority. I maintained the United Kingdom's Parliamentary Scrutiny reserve. I was however satisfied that the revised proposal met all our main concerns and I indicated that, subject to our Parliamentary Scrutiny reserve, the UK could now accept the proposal as a basis for a Common Position of the Council. The proposal will return to the Council for adoption of a Common Position in due course. The UK would therefore propose at that point to vote in favour of a Common Position on the basis of the revised text.

  I regret that because of the rapid developments in the discussions prior to 20 November, it was not possible to inform the Committee of the revised proposal, and the UK's likely position, before the Council meeting took place. I would be happy to provide any further information or statement the Committee may require.

  As compared with the original proposal, the revised proposal makes the following main changes:

   -   the recommended principles of quality assurance are less detailed

   -   in a number of places the autonomy and diversity of national higher education systems is to be taken into account

   -   there would no longer be a formal European Quality Assurance Network

   -   Member States are however recommended to promote cooperation and networking" between quality assurance authorities

   -   the Commission is recommended to encourage this cooperation, in close cooperation with the Member States themselves and on the basis of existing programmes

   -   the Commission is requested to present triennial reports on the development of quality assurance systems and on cooperation activities at European level, but is not (as in the original proposal) asked to submit appropriate proposals for strengthening quality assurance.

  The general effect of these changes is that decisions on the nature and extent of cooperation activities in quality assurance are left to Member States, while the Commission would have a supporting role. Cooperation activities would be eligible for support from existing Community programmes where they fall within the aims, rules and budgets of those programmes.

  I believe the current proposal is very significantly improved. We have always accepted that European cooperation in this field is desirable, and that a Recommendation containing broad guidelines for such cooperation could be useful. Our concern had been that detailed rules, and a formal Network, could be unnecessarily bureaucratic, costly, and restrictive.

  Under the revised approach, there would be no formal Network, and it would be primarily for Member States to decide on the pace and extent of cooperation activities. Any call for Community expenditure would need to be considered under existing programmes and budgets. While of course the Commission would retain its right of initiative under the Treaty to propose legislation, it would not, as in the original proposal, be specifically requested to submit appropriate proposals for strengthening of quality assurance in higher education.

  The Department's Explanatory Memorandum, as noted by the Committee, also mentioned uncertainty about the proposed legal base, and in particular the inclusion of Article 127 as well as Article 126 of the EC Treaty. In the course of the discussions the UK asked the Commission if it could explain the need for the dual legal base, and the Commission cited a number of precedents. Our understanding of the legal position following these discussions is that Article 126 would be a sufficient legal base, but that it would be quite proper for the Council to decide on the dual legal base if it so preferred. The Council has agreed to proceed on the dual base. However, the revised proposal does not contain any incentive measure" for the purposes of Article 126, and the cooperation procedure rather than the codecision procedure with the European Parliament will apply.

  For your information only, I am enclosing a copy of the text considered at the Council on 20 November [not printed].

2 December 1997

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

  Thank you for your letter of 2 December bringing me up to date with developments in regard to the draft Council Recommendation on European Co-operation in Quality Assurance in Higher Education (7999/97). I am grateful to you also for sending a copy of the revised Commission proposal discussed at the Council on 20 November.

  As you know, Sub-Committee F were interested in the original proposal, and I shall make arrangements to ensure that they are aware of the revised proposal, and of your position on it. I will let you know if Sub-Committee F has any further points to make on this subject.

11 December 1997




 
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