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The House of Lords weighs in on EU higher education policy

On 22 March 2012, the UK House of Lords European Union Committee (HOL) released a publication on The Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe. The report provides a comprehensive overview of EU higher education reform and mobility policy and in its conclusions, the Committee stressed the value of EU initiatives and the Bologna process and encouraged the more active participation from UK institutions and government.

“…… For its part, the (UK) Government should place higher education at the centre of its growth agenda, domestically and across Europe, by drawing on the potential of both the EU and the Bologna Process.”

This study and report comes on the heels of the European Commission’s communication (October 2011) on the funding and social dimensions of modernising HE in Europe. It involved research and consultation and called a number of high-profile witnesses including David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science and the European University Association.

The report was generally complementary of the ways in which the EU had contributed to the development of higher education in Europe, and singled out in particular the value of the Erasmus programmes. It also suggested that that the potential of European universities to contribute to Europe's future prosperity, in economic and social terms, remains underexploited. The Committee reiterated its support for the Europe 2020 agenda and called for further investigation into the links between higher education attainment, student mobility and employability.

The EU Multiannual Financial Framework discussions and negotiations for the new EU programmes in education and training (Erasmus for All) and research (Horizon 2020) formed an important backdrop. The HOL Committee welcomed the proposed increase in EU allocations for research, education and innovation programmes, the streamlined structure for Erasmus for All as well as the Masters Loan guarantee facility, but for the latter with the proviso that interest rates be competitive and repayment terms favourable for students. This support was extended in spite of the UK government’s opposition to some of the proposed funding increases, including Erasmus for All.

Reservations were expressed about the U-Multirank tool, and it was suggested that it should not be a priority, although the Committee did recognise some potential benefits relative to other international university ranking systems.

The low levels of UK student outward mobility were a cause for concern and the HOL Committee requested the UK government to consider mandatory language provision in primary and secondary schools. It also proposed that universities and the Commission should do more to promote mobility opportunities and make Erasmus placements more flexible.

Concerns were expressed that the high levels of UK tuition fees might now undermine the country’s competitiveness in the international student market, particularly relative to other European study destinations.

This study and recommendations are important since it marks one of few occasions when a formal UK Parliamentary Committee has expressed strong support for EU initiatives in higher education. Nonetheless, the practical political implications of the report are limited as the Committee is advisory and does not have a role in policy formulation. It is for the UK government to decide if a pro-European approach in higher education is compatible with its often-stated Euro-sceptic view.

House of Lords European Commission