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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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