If UK insists on hiding, it could end in 'nul points'

Britain's commitment to Europe was not mentioned in the white paper, yet it is key to success, says Juliet Lodge.

Discussion of a new constitution and the timing of Britain's potential adoption of the euro have put Europe in the spotlight. The government wants to be at the heart of Europe, but it seems we have not learnt the lessons of the single market, the Schengen agreement on common borders, the euro or institutional reform.

This year's white paper omitted the UK's university commitments in Europe - the Bologna Process, the European Credit Transfer System, the Diploma Supplement and, more lamentably, the European Research Area. It scarcely acknowledged the framework research programmes or contributions to their direction by UK vice-chancellors and professors during consultations on post-Framework 5 priorities. At the European University Association's convention in Graz, Austria, this weekend, the next stage in the process of convergence between Europe's university systems, which began with the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations, will be reached.

Yet the university world seems in danger of emulating Britain's performance in this year's Eurovision Song Contest (last place, no points) with a bewildering unconcern for the development of European higher education and research, and the ambitious programme of realising a European standard in higher education set out by European Union education ministers. There has been silence over the September Berlin ministerial conference on higher education and the key documents to which universities across Europe signed up. Bologna and the Magna Carta Universitatum of 1988 affirm the importance of universities to society and of maintaining the link between teaching and research.

Governments across Europe are agreed on prioritising Bologna quality goals by emphasising balance between institutional autonomy and external accountability, innovation, managed diversity and avoiding costly bureaucracy. UK universities may subscribe to this, but disagreement remains over the needs of a European benchmark for world-class universities. Our excellence in navel gazing is not a prescription for attaining world-class status. It is not a question of being pro or anti-Europe, but of whether the UK is going to isolate itself from a forward-looking European standard in higher education that allows universities the autonomy to realise world-class quality. The UK education agenda may stress widening access, participation, lifelong learning and the e-economy. But it is mired in the problems of fees, defining what a university is, student support, centres of excellence in teaching and foundation degrees. The fast-track two-year degree failed to convince the Europeans that it was equivalent to the continent's standards even under the John Major government when our three-year bachelors programmes were viewed with suspicion.

The best of our university leaders are far-sighted. Unfortunately, middle managers can be slow in implementing steps to meet the European standard and destructively fast in impeding them. Leadership for innovation requires vision and a dynamic response to a fast-changing European and international education and research market.

The UK will participate in the second conference to discuss European higher education in a global world. The message that needs to go back to the government and to university middle managers is the imperative of mainstreaming Europe into all policy, disciplinary and departmental sectors. If there is to be a European quality agency rather than the typical British intergovernmental approach, Universities UK needs to engage positively in it. We have much relevant experience and we must adapt to influence it.

It is foolhardy to pretend that we can achieve world-class inter-disciplinarity in teaching and research without Europeanisation.

Cooperation is the watchword: joint ventures, joint site degrees, and e-learning offer largely unexplored opportunities. While cost-cutting is a priority in the UK - as elsewhere in Europe - it is viewed unimaginatively.

Europeanisation could transform higher education to facilitate world-class status by 2010. To subscribe to the view that universities provide cream only for rich cats does a disservice to the contribution that universities make to the overall wealth of society.

European cooperation is a key opportunity for universities across the continent to capitalise on research. The challenge now is to develop a UK role at the centre of the European university world. Hollow pronouncements will not prove that the UK genuinely values higher education and research.

That requires debureaucratisation, innovation and a facilitative environment that releases the creativity that thrives best where autonomy is guaranteed.

Juliet Lodge is head of the Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence at the University of Leeds.

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