Select Committee on European Communities Twenty-Seventh Report



  64.    The enthusiasm of other EU students for UK universities, and the disinclination of UK students to study abroad, was a matter on which all witnesses had a view. They were concerned to find ways to encourage British students into the Erasmus scheme. But they were deeply divided as to whether or not the question of "imbalance," or the lack of "reciprocity" ought to be taken up at Community level.

  65.    Mr Clark, CVCP, HEFCE, Mr Reilly, Lord Smith of Clifton, the Institute of Physics, and the Committee's university witnesses shared the view (backed by the Teichler-Maiworm research) that EU students were drawn to the UK because of the English language, and by the strengths of British higher education: three-year degrees, which are short by continental standards, excellent staff-student ratios compared with many continental universities, better care of students, and, in most cases, a pleasant atmosphere.

  66.    The mirror-image, accepted by the CVCP, the University Association of Contemporary European Studies (UACES), the Institute of Physics and the Teichler-Maiworm Report, was that British students were reluctant travellers because they were weak in foreign languages and that they were unenthusiastic about crowded continental universities in which there was little staff-student contact.


  67.    The shortcomings of the British population in the mastery of a major foreign language, European or other, scarcely need documenting. The Teichler-Maiworm study shows that British (and Irish) students faced more foreign language - and academic - problems than students from other countries (Teichler-Maiworm, para 6.4.4). Mr Clark of the DfEE thought (Q 45) that learning a foreign language well enough to study in it was a "burden". Statistics produced for the Committee by the DfEE showed that although modern language entries for GSCE had been on the rise since 1991-1992 (by 6 per cent), over the same period modern language entries at A level fell by 19 per cent, and modern language passes at A level fell by 16 per cent (p 85).

  68.    Statistics obtained from the DfEE (p 37) on the numbers of foreign language assistants in Britain (i.e. foreign language teachers from abroad, teaching their native language), another marker of national commitment to linguistic competence, showed a distinct fall between the years 1994-95 and 1997-98. The fall was almost entirely accounted for by state sector schools where the fall was from 1,745 to 1,276, though universities also registered a decrease (109 to 73). There was a rise in the independent school and grant maintained sectors. The CVCP stated that "improved language skills both at school level and within higher education are pre-requisites for higher levels of UK student mobility" (p 48). HEURO called for modern language teaching in primary schools (pp 108 and 113). These are matters on which the Committee cannot pronounce, but we noted with interest the remarks of Mr Clark (Q 42) that this was a matter of priority within the school curriculum, and also the remarks of Baroness Blackstone (Q 240) about the various difficulties inherent in trying to change the situation, including the problem of the UK's narrow curriculum.


  69.    Mr Reilly suggested to the Committee (Q 15) that there might be some funding mechanism which could be activated by the Higher Education Funding Council to provide incentive payments to universities for language courses for non-linguists - although as far as Mr Reilly knew, HEFCE had no policy on languages for non-linguists. The Committee asked HEFCE about their funding mechanisms. Dr Hull and Mr Bekhradnia explained that the Funding Council's role in allocating public funds for universities was to ensure value for the taxpayer and to promote quality, while respecting the principle of university autonomy (QQ 78, 91). Specific initiatives taken by HEFCE were rare and highly selective. HEFCE would expect the DfEE to be first in line to award incentive funding, but when HEFCE have had specific subject-related problems drawn to their attention, they had provided funds. Soviet and East European Studies were a case.

  70.    Baroness Blackstone was questioned on the propriety of using incentive funding for courses such as intensive language courses. She said that the question was legitimate and that she would encourage her officials to think about it (Q 256).


  71.    Lord Smith of Clifton suggested to the Committee (Q 176) that the universities could do much to improve language competence, given the will. Ulster University had sent non-linguists to Portugal ready for cultural contact, if not for higher education study. These students could at least calculate the price of a bus ticket. Lord Smith suggested (Q 175) that it might be made compulsory for all undergraduates to have some facility in a foreign language. Baroness Blackstone expressed surprise at the idea of a compulsory element (Q 238). She said that this was a matter for universities (Q 239), but she doubted whether the aim was realistic (Q 240).

  72.    Dr Drake supported the use of intensive, summer courses teaching languages (QQ 157-158). These courses might particularly benefit the British, but were not exclusively for the British. The UK Socrates-Erasmus Council called for specific language projects to be introduced and suggested that more language assistants should be employed by universities (p 15).

  73.    HEURO (p 107) suggested the UK should be trying to seek compensation from the Commission for the imbalance of flow experienced by the United Kingdom; they further suggested that any funds obtained as compensation should be used to fund language teaching. This suggestion raises a different issue, that of the cost of the imbalance to public funds and to institutions.


  74.    In terms of the costs to public funds, Dr Hull of HEFCE told the Committee (Q 96) that he thought an "obvious solution" for the Commission would be to subsidise importing countries, but he said he would be very surprised if the Commission would agree to this. Lord Smith of Clifton (Q 174) saw merit in the idea, describing the United Kingdom and Ireland as the world's biggest laboratories for English as a second language. However, he shared Dr Hull's scepticism as to the Commission's response to any such proposal. Baroness Blackstone said (Q 242) that she would like DfEE to explore the question of compensation with the Commission, and thought there might be sympathy from Belgium and Ireland, even if she too doubted the outcome of the application.

  75.    The DfEE's director of higher education, Mr Clark, suggested that in principle, at Community level, it ought to be easier to take action to address the imbalance of flow within the Erasmus programme than outside it. "There are rules and regulations governing the programme, and by working within those rules and regulations, and working with the universities, it ought to be easier" (Q 30).

  76.    The argument put forward for compensation to the institution is the cost to the institution of the "extra" Erasmus students. The financial arrangements for Erasmus were explained to the Committee by the CVCP (Q 107) and Mr Reilly (QQ 9, 18-22). In theory, tuition of Erasmus students should be a zero sum game. HEFCE makes a block grant to each university in respect of the number of students attending the university. If (as was originally intended under Erasmus) the number of incoming Erasmus student equals the number of outgoing Erasmus students, the university neither loses nor gains financially. If, however, the number of incoming Erasmus students exceeds the number of outgoing Erasmus students (as is often the case in the United Kingdom), no additional grant is made by HEFCE to cover the cost of the extra students. Furthermore, it is a condition of Erasmus participation that universities do not charge tuition fees to the incoming student.

  77.    The cost of hosting an Erasmus student (extra language classes for example, or, as suggested by Professor Sibson (Q 107), extra pastoral care) is covered (in theory, though not in practice) by the Commission grant under the institutional contract (see paragraphs 156 and 157 below). But the Commission grant does not meet the additional cost to British universities of hosting "extra" Erasmus students. Thus, neither HEFCE nor the Commission, nor the Erasmus students themselves contribute towards the cost of "extra" Erasmus students, and it is British universities that are left to pick up the bill, which in HEFCE's view was "substantial" (Q 98).

  78.    In the view of the CVCP there is a further cost associated with participation in Erasmus and that is support for British Erasmus students during their study abroad. Professor Sibson (Q 107) suggested to the Committee that the Erasmus student could be compared with a sandwich student out on placement, for whom the institutional costs are assessed at 50 per cent of a full-time student. Professor Sibson suggested that this provided a significant disincentive to the university to engage in the programme.

  79.    It should be noted that the arrangements for Erasmus students are distinct from the arrangements for non-Erasmus EU students, (the "free movers"). Mr Clark considered that these students raised a much more serious cost question (Q 41). Mr Bekhradnia of HEFCE (Q 77) agreed that the cost of the free movers warranted some consideration, though he added that quantifying costs is easy, whereas quantifying benefits is less so. The Committee simply notes that one way or another, the presence of the free movers is an important factor influencing the European strategies, and the costing strategies, of British universities. For some universities, it is clearly a more important factor than for others.


  80.    Given the reluctance of British students to take up a place in a foreign university, the Committee considered whether British universities should (or, indeed, under Community law, could) take action to sever Erasmus contracts (or to deter EU students) from studying in the United Kingdom. This idea was put forward, uniquely, by Mr Clark of the DfEE who suggested that universities should be more "dirigiste" (Q 62). He put it to the Committee that universities set up contracts with other European universities, and that through these contracts it ought to be possible for them to set up figures that provide a much closer balance overall. However, the idea was firmly rejected by the Minister (Q 247), who said it would be a grave mistake to cap incoming students. As a general policy, it was also opposed by all other witnesses (and the higher education press), although some universities were taking steps to attain a better balance (see para 61 above).

  81.    The DfEE provided the Committee with written evidence (p 17), which raised further questions in relation to deterrence. Under European law, the Government is required to ensure that students from other EU countries are offered the same terms as home students for tuition fees, and the same access to assistance with fees. (European law does not require the Government to offer EU students the same help with maintenance grants as it offers to home students.) Several witnesses pointed out that the imposition of a flat-rate £1,000 tuition fee from 1998 onwards[7] created a potential deterrent to free-moving EU students. Mr Clark's reference to British tax payer subsiding the equivalent of three to four extra universities (see para 59 above) suggests that the Government sees this cost as a much graver problem than the imbalance under Erasmus. Dr Hull (Q 93) thought that some might be deterred but also observed that non-EU students had been willing to pay high fees for the chance of British higher education. Mr Reilly (Q 18) and Professor Teichler (Q 223) did not believe the fee would necessarily be a deterrent. Mr Clark was not expecting it to act as a deterrent: he told the Committee the DfEE was prepared for EU students to continue to arrive in the UK in large numbers, and to claim the assistance the Government was prepared to provide with fees. The Government had even set up a means testing unit for EU students interested in loans to help with their fees (Q 54).


  82.    The case for compensation aroused the most determined opposition from three witnesses: Dr Drake, Mr Reilly and Professor Teichler. The argument for compensation was seen as non-communautaire. As Professor Teichler said in a seminar on the occasion of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Society for Research in Higher Education, "Many European programmes are expected to serve the relatively weaker partners more strongly and thus to contribute to a balance in the long run"[8]. He also suggested to the Committee that what was at issue was only the marginal cost of 10,000 Erasmus students (Q 228), which he described as "peanuts" (Q 229).

  83.    Professor Teichler also told the Committee that many countries have a tradition, or a strategy, in relation to study abroad (Q 222). Some strongly encourage their students to study abroad on the grounds that a country must "internationalise or perish" (for example, Sweden). The UK, on the other hand, is an example of a country which adopts an approach of "internationalisation through importation." Some countries make a choice to do both (for example, Germany). The UK stance can be seen as passive, but there is no doubt that it reaps benefits (as indeed many British witnesses recognised)[9]. While almost every other country had already put a large investment into English-teaching and translation, so that its pupils and students could learn the lingua franca, Britain enjoyed a magnet status. "The UK should be happy!" Professor Teichler said (Q 231).

  84.    Professor Teichler suggested, moreover, that students' choice of destination was determined by several factors (Q 214). The most important factor was indeed prior knowledge of the language. France also benefitted from this factor. But while the UK (and Ireland) were greatly sought after as homes of the lingua franca, it should be noted that other countries (such as Denmark, for example) now offered higher education in the English language. In other respects, the pulling power of British higher education should be seen as relative. The UK was attractive for its short first degree course, which could be fitted in as a stage by continentals used to longer studies. But the Erasmus students who rated their progress greatest were those who went to study in Danish and Dutch universities, and Germany was rated highest on academic standards. The UK is also attractive for staff-student contact. In summary, according the Teichler-Maiworm study (Chapters 9 and 10) the UK is attractive to foreign students because of their widespread knowledge of English, the perceived emphasis on good teaching and learning, and the shorter length of courses. Professor Teichler noted that even British teachers used the term "spoon feeding"; and Professor King remarked (Q 135) that continental students who had not had such treatment seemed much more mature than British students. Climate and food were other criteria which may weigh heavily; so may a climate of Euroscepticism. This was reported as a negative factor at the time of the Teichler-Maiworm study.


  85.    Several witnesses suggested that the UK funding system created a number of perverse effects in relation to the implementation of EU programmes. Those directly concerned pointed out that costs were falling not on public funds or on the institution as HEFCE and the CVCP had suggested, but rather on the department and the academics keen to make the most of European programme opportunities (Dr Drake (Q 161), Mr Jennings (Q 172)).

  86.    The Funding Council structure puts departments in competition with each other. There was, therefore, little incentive for departments to take on the extra responsibilities of Erasmus students, (Dr Drake (Q 155), Mr Jennings (Q 172)) though Lord Smith of Clifton believed that such difficulties were overcome when there was a institutional strategy (Q 172).

  87.    The fact that under current Government policy, universities may charge fees to non-Erasmus EU students, but not to Erasmus students, provides a further disincentive to universities to take on "extra" Erasmus students.

  88.    HEFCE's secretary Dr Hull, and its policy officer Mr Bekhradnia, agreed that funding structures influence university financial strategies (QQ 71, 91). As Dr Hull put it, HEFCE exercises its funds as a lever. Mr Beckradnia agreed that HEFCE funding encouraged universities to create a balance. HEFCE funding also encourages universities to diversify their sources of income. The DfEE explained (p 18) that universities, as autonomous institutions, set their own fees for other overseas students (allowing for the government's policy that there should be no subsidy generally from public funds for such students). The fact is that funding mechanisms directly encourage universities to take overseas students (CVCP (Q 107), HEFCE (QQ 87-88)).


  89.    Dr Drake for UACES made a strong case to the Committee that the tightly structured three-year English degree is a strong disincentive to study abroad (Q 152). As noted above, she told the Committee that British students were so assessment-driven that many felt they could not take the risk of study abroad, particularly in a tough institution where their marks might pull down their final degree marks. She claimed that for some other EU students Erasmus was an "add-on", and in any event most were in systems which did not have the one-off pass-fail structure of most British degrees. This analysis was backed by Professor Teichler (Q 324) who said that, ironically, it was the "good organisation" of the British system which made it difficult to insert the study abroad element. The three-year degree clearly has an impact on the ability of students to take up Erasmus places: however, the three-year structure raises wider issues of domestic policy, on which the Committee does not wish to comment.

  90.    Lord Smith of Clifton disagreed, suggesting the issue was whether study abroad was built "from the word go" into courses (Q 175). He said Ulster's European module bio-medical science and environmental science courses were attractive to students precisely because of the European element. He also said that Erasmus students and others studying abroad were "rewarded" with a special diploma alongside their degree (Q 174).

  91.    Approaching the subject of the three-year degree from another angle, Baroness Blackstone said that (Q 248) British students get through their degree courses quickly because of the high ratio of staff. She said, "We have to hope that there will be a coming together of European universities in terms of level of tuition, pastoral support and other back up. If we were better aligned in this respect, that will ease the problem of balance".


  92.    When this enquiry was started it seemed as if British students might be further deterred from taking up programme opportunities by the Government's imposition of tuition fees. The Government initially announced that it would charge outgoing British students £500 - i.e. half the home student tuition fee. During the course of the enquiry the Government made a welcome concession - announced by the Minister herself to the Committee - that students spending a full year abroad within Erasmus would not be charged any tuition fee (Q 235).

  93.    Mr Jennings of Bradford University drew attention to the effect of the cut in maintenance grant over recent years (Q 180). He made the point that many students are now obliged to have part-time jobs while they are at university. For these students, study abroad might be at the cost of losing their job - a cost which most students could not afford (Q 179). Miss Jones of Bradford made the point that EU students do not seem to suffer the same problems (Q 188). Confirming a point in the Teichler-Maiworm survey, she said other EU students are expected by their parents and their peers to do part of their study abroad. Their parents appear to support them, she said.

  94.    These costs, together with the other disincentives explored above, all help to explain the lack of enthusiasm for the Socrates-Erasmus programme on the part of British students. One final explanatory factor which emerged in the course of the Committee's enquiry was the question of national leadership on EU higher education questions in the university world and in Government.


  95.    Mr Reilly suggested (Q 15) that "a more positive perception" of study abroad via the Socrates-Erasmus programme might help to encourage mobility among British students. He thought it a scandal (Q 5) that the Dearing Committee[10] did not mention the European dimension at all. Lord Smith of Clifton hoped the advent of a Government which was not anti-European, and the establishment of an international sector group within the CVCP, might help to change the climate (Q 172). Professor Teichler drew a contrast between the United Kingdom's lukewarm approach to Europe and the drive in the Republic of Ireland for modern language learning. He noted that the UK and Ireland are both homes of the lingua franca: and yet their strategies are different (Q 234).

  96.    Lord Smith of Clifton considered that there was a serious failure of leadership at corporate and Government level (Q 174). He said that the CVCP Council had never had Erasmus or Socrates on its agenda, and that very little attention had been paid to the programme at the level of the DfEE, CVCP, or at the UK Socrates Council (where he had just taken over as chair) (QQ 172, 174 and 194). Vice-Chancellor attendance at the Council was poor. In his view, the Council should be the main policy forum. At present, the director of the national agency (Mr Reilly) carries all the burden on his shoulders. Lord Smith accused the DfEE of a book-keeping approach, with imbalance the only issue on the agenda (Q 172). He expressed the hope (Q 202) that in the future the DfEE would spend more time on the issues raised by Socrates-Erasmus and stimulate the CVCP to work out a national European policy.

  97.    The Committee asked Baroness Blackstone whose responsibility it was to coordinate the national strategy in relation to the programme. The Minister's reply reinforced the impression that there is no single co-ordinating voice, drawing together a UK strategy on Socrates-Erasmus (Q 245).

  98.    The Committee took evidence from the CVCP and from the DfEE as to how they were set up to respond to EU initiatives. It noted that the CVCP does not refer to Europe in its corporate mission statement (although Professor Sibson explained that because the word "Europe" was not explicit in the statement, it did not mean it was not implicit (Q 106)). The Committee heard from Baroness Blackstone, whose own praise for the programmes was fulsome (Q 235), that it was the DfEE's job to promote the programme (Q 245); but we also heard from the DfEE that it was quite difficult to explain how the DfEE dealt with European questions, and what the relationship was between the higher education directorate of the Department and the EC Policy team (Q 70).

  99.    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.

  100.    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.

  101.    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.

  102.    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.

  103.    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.

  104.    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.

  105.    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.

  106.    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 imbalanc7e by encouraging more British students to take up Erasmus places.

  107.    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.

  108.    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.

  109.    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.

7   Following a recommendation of the Report of the National Committee on Higher Education in the Learning Society, June 1997 (The "Dearing Report"). Back

8   Society for Research in Higher Education, The Thirtieth Anniversary Seminars, published by The Chameleon Press Limited. Back

9   See The Value Added by the Programme, paras 31-41 above. Back

10   See Footnote 7. Back

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