Select Committee on European Communities Report


82.  STUDENT MOBILITY IN THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY (27TH REPORT, SESSION 1997-98)

Memorandum submitted by the Department for Education and Employment

  The Government thanks the Committee for this thoughtful and helpful report and welcomes its recommendations. The Government wishes to present the report and this response to the relevant authorities in the European Union.

  It is undoubtedly the case, as the Committee concludes, that the European and, indeed, international dimension of higher education is vitally important and can no longer be considered an add-on [219] by Government or by institutions. We welcome this opportunity to clarify and restate our policy in this area and to deal with the specific points about the Socrates-Erasmus programme raised by the Committee.

POLICY ON INTERNATIONAL STUDENT MOBILITY

  The Government's policy on international student mobility embraces three kinds of student originating outside the United Kingdom, all of whom were discussed by the various witnesses.

  Firstly, and the subject of the report, there are those students who come to or go from the UK for part of their course, and in particular those who come under the auspices of the European Community programmes, especially Socrates-Erasmus. Detailed comments and responses to the Committee's recommendations are set out below. Separately, many others study in the UK or overseas (often further afield than the EU) under bilateral agreements between institutions. The UK Government has in place mechanisms for supporting such activity, particularly by offering those studying in high cost countries additional support towards their costs.

  Secondly, there are those students who come to the United Kingdom from elsewhere in the European Union for a complete higher education course. In essence, these are "home" students. They are entitled to be treated and funded in exactly the same way as students from the UK as far as tuition fees and block grants are concerned. As the Committee heard, there are significantly more students who choose to come to the UK than there are UK students who choose to study a complete course elsewhere in the EU. Some have argued that this imbalance is unsatisfactory.

  The Government considers that this in-flow has many positive advantages. It represents a vote of confidence in the quality of UK higher education, both by our own students and by others in the EU. It encourages the "European dimension" to develop in institutions and exposes those students who do not themselves travel to an international atmosphere. Finally, although there is a direct cost in terms of support towards tuition costs, these students are not entitled to financial support towards their maintenance costs from the UK Government. Therefore, any money that they spend here contributes directly to the UK economy (and, through indirect taxation, to Government income).

  The Government does not actively encourage individuals from the UK to study in another country for the whole of their higher education, nor would the Government wish to encourage active marketing of UK higher education to potential first degree students from elsewhere in the EU, although this is a matter for institutions. The position of full fee paying EU students on certain postgraduate courses is different and closer to that of students from outside the EU. We remain committed to ensuring that we continue to fulfil our treaty obligations in the granting of access to UK higher education and in the charging of tuition fees.

  Finally, there is the growing group of students from outside the EU, who are designated as "overseas" students. The Government unreservedly welcomes these students to the UK, for their contribution to academic life in our institutions and for their contribution to the internationalisation of UK higher education. It is, however, reasonable to expect that students from outside the EU should be prepared to fund the full cost of their higher education, both tuition costs and living expenses. The Government encourages institutions in the responsible and prudent marketing of UK higher education overseas, including to EU postgraduates, and recognises the valuable contribution that this makes to export earnings.

  The Government funds many scholarships for such students, most famously through the Chevening Scholarships. Many more students are, of course, sponsored by their own governments or by industry.

  The Government recognises the long-term benefits which accrue to the United Kingdom from hosting all of these different kinds of students in UK higher education institutions [197].

 THE EUROPEAN PROGRAMMES INCLUDING SOCRATES-ERASMUS

  The Government agrees with the conclusion of the Committee [187] that these programmes are successful and are of benefit to the country and to institutions and students.

  The Government shares the Committee's perception of the value of SOCRATES as a means of supporting and supplementing Member States' efforts to offer high-quality education at all levels. The Government believes that citizens' ability to become and remain employable within the Single European Market will increasingly depend on their having access to the European dimension of education, training and retraining provision. While acknowledging the Committee's particular interest in the ERASMUS action, the Government thinks it important to bear in mind that the SOCRATES programme is addressed not only to the higher education sector, but also to schools and to adult learners. The Government also reminds the Committee of the close links that are developing between actions under SOCRATES and actions under the LEONARDO DA VINCI vocational training programme, and of the need to intensify those links in the next generation of programmes. These links will be vital to the development of coherent Community support for Member States' lifelong learning policies. [188]

FUTURE PROGRAMMES

  The Government has broadly welcomed the European Commission's proposal for the second phase of the SOCRATES programme (SOCRATES II), and hopes that this will build on the success of the current programme in helping Member States to develop the European dimension of education at all levels. The Government welcomes in particular the Commission's stated intention to secure better links and pathways between the programme's various actions as well as with programmes in the fields of vocational training and youth. However, the Government believes that there is scope in the interests of enhancing accessibility and user-friendliness for the new programme to be simplified and to employ more decentralised procedures. [217, 219]

  The Government believes that, in view of the need for more synergy between education, vocational training and youth actions as well as the critical mass of activity in non-higher education built up by SOCRATES, there is a need to consider the balance of resources between the different levels of education in the future programme. However, it also acknowledges the existing unfulfilled demand for SOCRATES funds, particularly in respect of the ERASMUS action. The Government believes that the financial resources allocated to SOCRATES II should be commensurate with the scale and nature of the activity to be undertaken. The Government will not, therefore, take a final view on the programme's funding needs until negotiations have clarified its eventual contents. However, given the fact that the UK is a net contributor to the budget of the European Union, the Government reminds the Committee of the need to ensure that EU funds are spent in the most effective way possible, and that activities undertaken with EU support make a tangible contribution to enriching the experience of learners. [188, 189, 190]

  The Government is in full agreement with the Committee that SOCRATES II must be as flexible as possible in order to offer the widest possible access to learners and to remain responsive to changing needs and priorities. The UK and other Member States are currently considering how this flexibility might best be achieved, particularly in respect of the proposed joint actions between SOCRATES II and other EU programmes. [202]

WIDENING ACCESS IN THE NEW PROGRAMMES

  The Government believes it highly important that the new programme reach out to groups that have in the past enjoyed fewer opportunities to benefit from European co-operation, notably learners in further and adult education, the disabled and the disadvantaged. The UK will press the European Commission to cover access issues in its programme monitoring and evaluation arrangements. Such monitoring would enable Member States to assess how far the programme's goal of promoting a culture of lifelong learning was being achieved. [204, 205]

LANGUAGE

  The Government sees the improvement of language-learning opportunities as one of the fundamental goals of European co-operation in education. It agrees with the Committee that the policy of giving preference to minority EU languages should be reviewed, in view of the much higher level of demand for more widely used languages. However, the Government is not convinced that giving priority to the English language as such would be an achievable objective. [209, 210, 211, 212]

  The Government broadly agrees with the Committee's recommendations to the Commission about a greater use of innovative language preparation, including summer courses and that mobility should be key to the new programmes. [203, 207]

SOCRATES-ERASMUS PARTICIPATION

  The Committee makes a number of points about Socrates-Erasmus and, in particular, the imbalance of participation.

  We endorse wholeheartedly the conclusions at paragraph 191 and 192 and consider that Socrates-Erasmus already forms a central part of the Government's strategy for a European (and international) dimension in higher education. It is, of course, for individual institutions to determine how best to approach the international dimension in the context of their own missions. In this, they have the assistance of the DfEE (which retains overall policy control for the programme) and the DfEE-sponsored UK Socrates-Erasmus Council which administers the programme and, through its executive body, provides a valuable focus for discussion and input to Government and the European Commission.

  The Government recognises the issues raised by the imbalance of student flows. We endorse the Committee's view that there are many benefits to the UK, to institutions and to students in having large numbers of foreign students in our institutions [194 and 197], both within and outside the Socrates-Erasmus programme.

  Despite concern about the direct cost of the imbalance, we recognise and endorse the view that it represents on the whole a lost opportunity for UK students, in that many more could take part. However, given that UK students already participate at roughly the rate that one would expect given our population as a proportion of the EU total, and the factors affecting participation identified by the Committee that are outside the Government's or institutions' control, it is probably unrealistic to expect complete parity. It is the Government's view that it is for institutions to decide how far they are prepared to accept an imbalance in student flows. Having examined the case for seeking compensation in recognition of the imbalance, the Government concludes that this would probably be counter-productive. We will, however, be seeking the assistance of the European Commission in other ways, beginning with a bi-lateral meeting with the Commission. We will also pursue structural and administrative improvements during negotiations on the new programme. [198]

GOVERNMENT ACTION TO PROMOTE PARTICIPATION

  Although there have been many efforts at all levels to improve participation, more can be, and is being, done by Government, by the Commission, by other central bodies and by institutions to encourage greater levels of participation by UK students. The reasons for non-participation are many and complex. It is our view that no single solution is likely to improve participation.

  Baroness Blackstone has met representatives of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council [193]. Some of the Government's existing and proposed activities were discussed at that meeting and are outlined below.

Publicity

  During its Presidency of the EU, the Government organised and distributed publicity and learning material and organised conferences and competitions for those involved in education. This campaign stressed the opportunities offered in Europe. In particular the pack aimed at schools received many plaudits at home and overseas. In due course, we would expect to see a positive effect on participation rates.

  It was suggested that a re-launch of the programme would be invaluable in raising the profile of Socrates-Erasmus. A high profile event with a Ministerial speech, to include participation of employers and other social partners was envisaged for the middle of 1999. This would coincide with the current timetable for the new EU programmes which will be launched in January 2000. In addition to the high profile event, it was suggested that there might be regional events, possibly involving regional development agencies and other partners.

  Further, the DfEE will be publishing a revised edition of its publication "European Choice", outlining the advantages of participation in study abroad. Next year's publication will cover all of the countries participating in Socrates-Erasmus including the new ones and will be available to students and prospective students in paper format and on the internet.

  UKSEC staff have been conducting a series of publicity events and offer information and advice on the internet and over the telephone.

Other partners

  Officials have held discussions with a range of other interested groups and will maintain contact with them. These include the University Council for Modern Languages and the Association of University European Officers (HEURO). Many groups have ideas about improving participation rates and can offer assistance.

Student finance

  Given that finance may be a factor for some students, the Government is committed to continuing to provide broadly the same level of financial support towards the travel and living costs of those students studying in high cost countries. UKSEC suggested that others, particularly business and the City might become involved in providing additional funds for a "superErasmus" scholarship.

  The Committee welcomed the announcement that fees will be waived for those students taking part in Socrates-Erasmus for a full academic year. The effect that this has on patterns of participation will be monitored closely. The Government does not view incoming Socrates-Erasmus students and "third country" (or "overseas") students as in conflict—as "third country" students cover the entire cost of their education, they will inevitably be attractive to institutions. However, they are not competing for the same places as incoming Socrates-Erasmus students or students from elsewhere in the EU. Indeed more "third country" students increase the overall funds available to institutions and can only benefit the quality of education offered. Students from other EU countries, as is detailed above, are no more or less attractive to institutions than "home" students. The Government does not regard this as perverse [200, 201].

Flexible administration

  Complexity in administration and long time delays are clearly factors in the participation rates of both students and institutions, who are asked to predict participation up to two years ahead.The Government will press for greater flexibility and clarity in the administration of the new programme. We therefore broadly support the conclusions of the committee [213, 214, 215, 216] aimed at improving instititutional participation and in particular welcome the Committee's endorsement of the view that a greater role for national agencies in the management of the programme would lead to wider participation and reduced drop out [218].

Academic and social preparation and recognition

  The Government agrees that it is important that the period of study abroad should be useful to the student and recognised on their return. A key factor here is greater use of the European Credit Transfer Scheme, which we endorse, and close co-operation between universities. [208]

  Further, we welcome the recommendation that the Commission should seek innovative ways to involve those groups which have been reluctant to participate in the programmes. [208]

Language and language assistants

  In addition to the points made above, in the context of the new programmes, the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges organises the Foreign Language Assistant programme for schools. It undertook in 1996, at the request of Government, a study into the decline in the use of foreign language assistants in schools. The Central Bureau is now taking action to arrest and reverse this decline, including promotion, dissemination of good practice, outreach with local and regional partner organisations, improvements in management and quality of the programme itself and working with national partners, such as the Teacher Training Agency and OFSTED. [196]

  It is, of course, for higher education institutions to determine their own staffing needs, including the use of language assistants. The Government, however, commends the Committee's recommendation to the sector. Many Universities already offer programmes that make the study of a foreign language available to most, if not all, students. The Government will examine ways in which such best practice (including the use of summer courses) could be made more widely available, together with the Funding Council. [196]

  The Government has announced its intention to broaden the A level curriculum to allow more subjects, including languages, to be studied in the first year. A significant increase in the teaching of languages in primary schools is a worthwhile objective but in the long term only. There are not enough language teachers available and the resource and organisational implications would be formidable. We welcome the survey finding (CILT 1995) that 20 per cent of primary schools teach a foreign language and that this number is rising. [195]

October 1998


 
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