Lords debate on modernising higher education in Europe

The main job of the European Union select committee in the House of Lords is to monitor the UK government’s handling of the multitude of proposals, programmes and directives that emanate from the European Union (EU).

The Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe debate, which took place on 11 October, was about proposals published in September by the European Commission titled Supporting Growth and Jobs – an Agenda for the Modernisation of Europe’s Higher Education Systems [COM (2011) 567].

The commission’s thesis was that the potential contribution of higher education to Europe’s prosperity remains underexploited.

While acknowledging that education is a member state, not an EU, responsibility, they want to see a number of actions that would build on the current Erasmus and Bologna programmes, encouraging collaboration and the exchange of students, promoting closer links between academia and industry and making sure that other EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and-or Structural Funds contribute to these objectives.

They also proposed the establishment of an EU loan facility to encourage mobility at the masters degree level; the development of EU-based U-Multirank university league tables; and more consideration of the socio-economic impact of higher education policies across Europe.

In introducing the debate, Baroness Young of Hornsey, who had chaired the committee looking at the proposals, explained that their report had generally welcomed the commission’s paper.

The increasing internationalisation of higher education worldwide meant that the benefits to be gained from collaboration and student exchange were considerable. Nevertheless the committee felt that UK, or more specifically English, universities “had yet to realise or fully embrace the benefits” offered by the Erasmus and Bologna programmes.

She highlighted the low take-up by UK students of Erasmus places and the lack of modern language teaching. Equally, the stringent visa regime imposed by the government itself greatly discouraged foreign students.

She was also critical of the attitude of the UK government towards the current negotiations on the EU’s future budget. She felt that, given the importance of education and research to innovation and growth, the government should be supporting – not opposing – the proposal for an increase in the Horizon 2020 budget.

There was only one proposal where the committee had reservations – the U-Multirank proposal. Were extra league tables really required?

In the debate, there was general agreement that time spent abroad, whether at a university or in a work placement, widened horizons and the understanding of other cultures. Many noted the imbalance in the Erasmus programme between the (approximately) 10,000 outgoing students from the UK compared to the 24,000 incoming students from other EU countries.

The lack of teaching for modern foreign languages was seen as one culprit and Baroness Jean Coussins in particular made an impassioned plea for more emphasis on language teaching, pointing to the fact that there was already a chronic shortage of native English-speaking interpreters in Brussels.

Baroness Tessa Blackstone, who had been higher education minister in 1999 and had signed the Bologna agreement on behalf of the UK, endorsed the proposal to introduce the loan for masters degrees.

She and several other speakers noted the low numbers of UK students going forward to research-based masters and doctorates and worried that the new fee regime would impact on the year abroad as well as discouraging postgraduate studies.

Both I and Lord Bhikhu Parekh questioned the use of the word ‘modernisation’. I was anxious to see more flexibility in the system – too many universities still failed to accept any credit transfer scheme. Lord Parekh called for more joint degrees.

Both he and Lord Frank Judd lamented the utilitarian approach implicit in the commission paper. “If we are going to have a society worth living in, what about re-visiting the principle of education for its own sake?” was Lord Judd’s plea.

This was a theme echoed by Baroness Onora O’Neill, who attacked the obsession with league tables. Lord Anthony Giddens also thought the paper could have been more adventurous, but he was sceptical of its relevance given that the EU was, as he put it, “in the throes of an existential crisis”, which would bring profound changes in the course of the next few years.

In responding on behalf of the government, Baroness Susan Garden gave little ground. She emphasised the government’s recognition of the degree to which higher education now operated in an international marketplace and of the value of schemes such as Erasmus, which encouraged collaboration and exchange between universities.

She hoped the teaching of modern languages would be encouraged by the new requirements of the EBACC [the replacement for GCSE exams). She said it was too early to know what impact the new fee regime might have on the willingness of UK students to take a year abroad or, for that matter, to go on to postgraduate study.

She said that the government wanted to see more EU resources going into education and research, but not if this meant increasing the budget overall – that is, there had to be cuts elsewhere, such as from the Common Agricultural Policy.

Nor did she give much hope of change in the visa regime, while conceding that “the government had got its publicity wrong”.

All in all, it was a useful debate, but not one from which we learned much that we did not already know.

* Margaret Sharp is Baroness Sharp of Guildford in the British House of Lords. A liberal democrat, she led the party's group that considered policy towards higher and further education and produced the policy paper, “Quality, Diversity and Choice”, which argued against top-up fees.