§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Lord Wallace of Saltaire rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Student Mobility in the European Union (27th Report, HL Paper 116).
§ The noble Lord said: The context of this report was a Commission communication, Towards a Europe of Knowledge, which deals with the next round of the Erasmus-Socrates scheme which is to start from January 2000. Therefore, our aim is to feed into the development of that new and expanded programme. We note in particular that the Commission's aim is for a major expansion of exchange programmes with only a small expansion in the budget allocated. We note that the number of participants in the scheme is expanding and will expand further with the new programme, as applicants and associates join.
In the past three months I have been struck by the fact that I have been approached by two former students of mine, one of whom is now the Icelandic co-ordinator for Erasmus-Socrates and the other the Estonian co-ordinator for Erasmus-Socrates. Clearly, those countries are gearing themselves up to take advantage of the best opportunities provided by the programme.
§ I should like to thank our Clerk, Mary Bloor, and our special adviser, Anne Corbett, for the assistance they gave us in this inquiry.
§ As we began the inquiry, we discovered the difficulty of examining only the Erasmus-Socrates schemes. We were aware immediately that those represent only a fraction of student flows into and out of the United Kingdom. There is also a substantial flow of students from the United Kingdom to the rest of the European 2120 Union and, of course, from other countries within the European Union into the UK, quite often for their full undergraduate or graduate study periods.
§ There is also the whole international dimension of British higher education, which is much influenced by the interchange between the United Kingdom and non-EU countries, as indeed it has been for a long time. My own institution, the London School of Economics, was founded partly to deal with the education of Indian civil servants and has always had a strong Indian connection. Many of us have spent part of our educational experiences in the United States.
§ There is, of course, an imbalance in all of these flows. We noted the imbalance within the Erasmus-Socrates programme. We were told—some within the Department for Education and Employment feel that this is a real problem—that there is an overall imbalance in interchanges between Britain and the rest of the European Union amounting to some 40,000 students which, we were informed, is equivalent to four United Kingdom universities. There is, of course, an imbalance between ourselves and the rest of the world, but at fuller cost since those students pay a much higher fee.
§ We also noted a strong consensus that the international dimension is valuable; that it is an important aspect of the high quality of British higher education; and that it is to be encouraged rather than discouraged. There are clear benefits as well as some financial costs. But we were concerned to discover that the widening gap between inflows and outflows, particularly within Erasmus-Socrates, follows partly from the decline in the number of British students who are willing to spend part of their period of study abroad.
§ The reasons for the decline were fully discussed. It is partly a problem of the deteriorating quality of language teaching in British schools and universities, partly a matter of funding, and partly the caution and conservatism of British students in the current uncertain financial conditions towards undertaking periods of study abroad which may lengthen their overall course and thus deepen their financial obligations. There were also fears over whether their home universities will recognise the value of the courses they have undertaken while abroad.
§ We also discovered a degree of incoherence in the British Government's approach to Erasmus-Socrates in their calculation of the costs and benefits and the co-ordination between the different parts of the DfEE, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council. We explored and wish to query the Commission's bias in promoting student exchange towards minority languages as against the clear evidence that students prefer to study the major languages, above all in Britain. Britain and Ireland are the two countries with the biggest imbalance in the European Union, and then it is France, Germany and, to some extent, Spain and Italy.
§ Our recommendations are directed both to the Commission and to Her Majesty's Government, and through those to other member states. To the Commission we recommend that grand objectives require comparable resources and that grand objectives 2121 without adequate resources must be questioned. If this is a worthwhile activity—we are convinced that it is—then the Commission should fight for a larger share of the Community budget than the current tiny proportion that is spent on it. It would also be of greater benefit to Britain than some other areas in which the Community budget is currently spent.
§ We query the focus on minority languages within the Commission's initial proposals. The balance should be towards encouraging mobility and exchange and therefore responding to students' interests and needs. We also say that the Commission's new ideas about virtual mobility, electronic networking and computer exchanges are not a substitute for the encouragement of students to spend some of their time studying in foreign cultures and experiencing all the benefits of seeing how the world looks from a different environment.
§ We wish to encourage more intensive language courses, shorter courses and summer courses in particular, to encourage mature students who do not have the time and often have family commitments which prevent them from going abroad for a full year. We wish also to encourage greater access for the disabled and other minorities. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, who is unable to be with us tonight, was particularly concerned about that dimension of our inquiry.
§ We recommend that there should be more incentive payments for language development in the new programme in respect of English and the major languages. We emphasise also the importance of further progress and a mutual recognition of courses through the European Credit Transfer Scheme.
§ Our recommendations to the Government are, first, that we wish there to be a clear recognition that the international dimension of higher education represents high value to British education. We welcome the warm response and the firm statement from the Government in response to that recommendation. We wish the Government to make it clear that it is a worthwhile aspect of higher education for more students to be encouraged to study abroad. In that respect, we welcome the Government's waiving of fees for British Erasmus students as one way of encouraging more student interchange.
§ We call for an examination of the perverse effects of funding in that at the present time there is a greater incentive for British higher education institutions to recruit people from outside the European Union than from inside. We received some evidence of declining enthusiasm for Erasmus within British higher education institutions because the funding implications and costs are high. The benefits are intangible whereas the costs are tangible. Those are all elements in the shifting balance of funding for British higher education, which shifted this year and many of us fear will shift again over the next few years.
§ We made a number of recommendations to improve the management of the UK scheme, which I shall leave to others to address. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton has been the chair of the UK Socrates scheme and I bow to his greater expertise in that respect. We wish to encourage and recommend to the Government a 2122 broader take-up of disciplines within the scheme. There is a vast overemphasis on business and language studies. We emphasise that we were given good evidence from the Institute of Physics that scientists also benefit from studying their subject in a different cultural environment. I hold a particularly strong view that economists would benefit a great deal from studying outside the Anglo-Saxon world, thus appreciating that Anglo-Saxon economics is not the only form of economics in the world. My economics colleagues do not entirely agree with me in that respect.
§ We wish also to encourage the Government to pursue the question of funding of the Commission's programme and to encourage other governments to increase their funding of exchange programmes to attract more British students. The way to lessen the imbalance is to encourage more British students to study abroad, not to discourage students from elsewhere in the European Union from coming to Britain.
§ There is a wider issue, which is expanding the horizons of the younger generation. I note the immense success of the Franco-German student exchange schemes over the past 35 years, which altered the way in which the younger generation in those two countries see each other. It is an immense success. I recall that when Britain joined the European Community in 1973 we had our own Rippon package, which was also intended to encourage precisely the same sort of student exchange, brought in by the then Conservative government which, in those days, your Lordships may remember, was in favour of greater European integration. The scheme was then killed by the incoming Labour Government, which your Lordships will remember in those days was against European integration.
§ It seems to me that we should be moving towards something like a Rippon package. I see that in the Government's response there is a suggestion that a super-Erasmus set of scholarships should be pursued by private funding through business and the city. Private funding is a supplement, but it is not the only basis on which to expand.
We wish to encourage, therefore, a wider British strategy for international education through languages, academic exchanges, student exchanges, funding priorities and incentives. The Government stated in their response that,
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".
That is precisely the approach we wish to encourage. We also welcome the Government's statement in their response that we need a proper strategy for language teaching. We need to reverse the decline in foreign language assistants in British schools and universities. The move towards broader A-levels and more language teaching, both in primary and secondary schools, is part of what our response should be.
§ I was initially a sceptic in regard to the Erasmus scheme. However, I was impressed by how rapidly it encouraged interchange among universities in this country and elsewhere on the European continent. I was 2123 also impressed by how it changed the attitude of a number of British academics to international and European exchange. There have been problems of management, funding and balance as the scheme has grown. We address some of those questions in the report.
However, the overall objective is highly valuable and important. This is not just a question of the European Union, or even of the efficiency or inefficiency of Commission management. This is a question of foreign policy and education in the widest sense. As we say in paragraph 219:
in terms of UK education policy, Europe can no longer be seen as an add-on".
The European dimension of our own national education strategy cannot be ignored. I commend the report to the House.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Student Mobility in the European Union (27th Report, HL Paper 116).—(Lord Wallace of Saltaire.)
§ 5.40 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, like most of your Lordships, I became a European citizen with the passing of the Treaty of Maastricht. I do not recall having asked to become a European citizen; nevertheless I was made one. I should like to reassure your Lordships, in case there is any doubt, that I intend to be entirely non-controversial today. There are dangers in being too contentious on matters relating to Europe, but that is another story upon which I shall not enlarge today.
I pass no comment on the purpose of the Commission as I see it although it is set out in the report. It wants to establish a firmer base to European citizenship. It considers that by the exchange of students, particularly those at higher level, an extra consciousness of European citizenship would be encouraged, irrespective of whether or not that consciousness rivals our responsibilities as British nationals to our own country.
The trouble with these European programmes in which we are invited to participate and indeed to enlarge our participation is that they all cost money. I must apologise for drawing to the attention of the House the fact that such programmes always carry a cost which ultimately has to be borne by the British taxpayer, whether in the form of value added tax or income tax.
At present—and, indeed, in the past—we have all been subject to financial disciplines. We have to determine our own priorities within our expenditures. Your Lordships will recall that in more recent times my right honourable friend in another place, the Secretary of State for Health, found it necessary to lay down firm rules with regard to any additional expenditure on, for example, the National Health Service. Indeed, stringency is implied in the term "sound finance", which means that there is a definite clampdown. Whether or not that is desirable is a question for economists. I do not think we have many here this afternoon.
2124 At present—this is factual; it is not at all controversial—the British taxpayer pays net into European funds £2,500 million per annum. I do not know whether people realise that. I repeat, "£2,500 million net"—that is after abatement and once all receipts into the Exchequer have been taken into account. That is not an insignificant sum. In order to heighten interest in the matter I observe in passing that so far neither this House nor its committees—the appropriate committee being the Select Committee on the European Communities—has considered the budget for 1999. The preliminary draft budget came to this country shortly after 15th May. I understand there was cursory perusal of the document but it did not feature in any committee or sub-committee deliberation. That is in spite of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, wrote in most explosive terms last year complaining that we were getting the budget too late for us to consider it. The budget was issued on 18th July. When it arrived here is not certain. I understand that it has been listed for consideration by Sub-committee A when it eventually meets. As far as I can ascertain—I have been making diligent inquiries of another place—the European budget has not been considered in the Commons either. Surely that is a little extraordinary. However, I digress from the central purpose of the report.
We are already spending quite large sums, as per the Community budget, on exactly the matters covered by this debate. They cover Socrates, the remnant of Erasmus and another scheme, more picturesquely called, Leonardo da Vinci. I have taken the precaution of bringing a copy of the budget with me. In money terms, at an exchange rate—I have taken the average from The Times over the past week—of 1.41 ecus to the pound, the budget provision for 1999 amounts to £232,596,000. The share of the Commission's budgeted expenditure borne by the United Kingdom is 13.42 per cent.. That works out at £34,214,130. Therefore, we are already contributing quite large sums.
Bearing in mind our overall contribution—made in cash out of taxpayers' pockets—into the European Communities, we are due to spend £32 million on this specific programme alone. That is £32 million as per the existing titles because all the expenditure is set out in the budget under Article B3–10. That can be checked.
Can we really afford to increase our expenditure on this programme, which passes unnoticed and undebated and about which nobody bothers? Can we really afford it? It is not for me to be controversial on the matter but I think that I owe it to the House to point out the facts of the expenditure. That may perhaps encourage both your Lordships and Members of another place to pay far more attention, before we proceed further on such expenditure, when making up their minds on the difficult and hard decisions that have to be made regarding the finances of this country—decisions that usually have adverse effects on the lower income groups, let alone the higher.
I thank your Lordships for so kindly listening to me on this matter. I have no opinions to offer on the desirability or otherwise of the scheme, but this House has not yet had the opportunity of even considering the 2125 United Kingdom's budgeted expenditure in Europe for 1999. Perhaps if there was a considered re-evaluation with the aim of improving the state of the nation's finances and establishing a proper order of priorities for those things on which the British taxpayer spends money, we might get a rational conclusion. I am certainly not going to hint to your Lordships which way I would wish the judgment to go. That remains for noble Lords and Members of another place to determine on the basis not so much of gutsy emotion or deeply ingrained prejudice, but on the sheer impact of financial facts.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord Elibank
My Lords, our committee chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has given a broad and very lucid overview of the report and our hearings. I should like to concentrate for a few moments on the effect that the mobility of students has directly on the United Kingdom. It is rather different from that of other countries in Europe.
We have been importing students for many years. We have been doing so for one or two centuries. It has been in the clear interests of this country to bring to our educational establishments leaders, and potential leaders, from what was then our empire. We would try to catch mostly young men at an appropriate stage and send them to this country to learn our way of life, culture and democracy. It was in the hope that when those young men returned to the home country after a period of years they would become leaders of their communities, having imbibed a good deal of what Britain had to offer. We also hoped that some—they would be sons of wealthy businessmen—would look to us as the mother country and it would become the first stop for the investigation of trade opportunities. It worked well, but perhaps we did not have sufficient of such students. The influence of the mother country on our empire was beneficial and profound in some respects.
That situation has not changed today: what has changed is the clientele. We are now importing European citizens with precisely the same hopes: that they will be influenced by our culture and learn our language; and that in the course of time they will become senior business executives and trade and commerce will flow our way. That is quite admirable and it is money well spent. The more we can spare for such a cause, so much the better.
However, the export of students is a more intangible matter. If we send our students to Europe what do they gain? They gain some knowledge of the culture of our European allies and the language. Perhaps they have rather a pleasant time. But the net benefit to UK Incorporated is rather slender. That is my first point. There is an imbalance, but do not let us worry too much about it.
Several factors influence student mobility. Two of the main factors are finance and language. When we were taking evidence in committee, I was struck by the various sources of finance available to students coming to this country and those leaving it. But it is difficult to find out where a student should apply and where the 2126 relevant funds might be. If I were a little bewildered by that, I suspected that many of the students were. It is right that responsibility for the education of these people should be spread widely. That is wholly admirable. But information about what is available should be much more closely co-ordinated. I know that the Government are doing something about it and we had some evidence about that. I still believe, however, that a good deal more can properly be done to disseminate information about the possibilities of education, in particular in this country.
Language is the other factor of great importance. We speak of English as one of the major languages of Europe—and, of course, it is. But it is a great deal more than that. I suggest to your Lordships that English is in a different category from French, German and Italian. English is now a world language and the lingua franca of a large part of the world. One can properly say that most intellectuals, academics, politicians and so forth who are scattered around the world aspire to a working knowledge of the English language. I believe that they regard it as indispensable not only for their own movement, but for their own ideas and trade. It is in quite a different category from the other European languages. It will inevitably lead to an imbalance in student mobility figures.
How does it work the other way? Why do our students not go overseas, and specifically to Europe? I suggest that there is not much incentive for them to do so. For example, a graduate engineer might consider studying engineering in Italy and believe that that would be of benefit to him. Then he pauses to think what he should do. If the funds are there, then why not? The benefit to him and his career is dubious. The chance that a job in engineering in Italy will occur soon after graduation or in the next few years is pretty remote. The benefit to him is marginal. The benefit to this country is also marginal.
This imbalance arises for historic reasons and because of the lucky fluke that our language has become a world language. It is not something that should worry us. We should not fret over the imbalance in the student mobility statistics. We should welcome it as a chance to benefit ourselves and spread our ideas, culture, civilisation and trade as widely as possible. We should put those funds available for higher education largely into the importation of students and their education here. Subsidising that education should be done in whatever way is thought appropriate. But I believe that we should be a good deal more conservative and cautious about investing moneys for British students to go to Europe. Our national interest in this exercise is pretty clear. We should keep it firmly in mind, notwithstanding the attractions of the cultural theory of student mobility which tends to dominate our thinking.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I speak as a newcomer to this House and not as a member of the committee. I also speak as a university teacher who has taught students who have benefited from the Erasmus-Socrates scheme. I welcome this excellent report from the European Communities Committee. I am 2127 delighted that it has stressed the value of the exchange opportunities which the Erasmus-Socrates scheme offers students and the important part it plays in the international dimension of higher education.
Looking through the report and its evidence, I regret that my own university, the University of Sussex, did not submit evidence to the committee. The university was founded in the 1960s, in the post-Robbins days, on the philosophy that knowledge did not fit into useful little boxes but crossed boundaries. It is was one of the first universities in this country to establish a school of European studies. In the school of European studies all the students benefited from a four-year course, which included a year abroad to study not only languages—French, Russian, Italian, German—but history, geography, international relations, law and economics.
The scheme was extended in the 1970s to include science students of Sussex. We ran a Science for Europe programme. Those studying physics, chemistry, engineering and biology have had, for the last 20 years, the opportunity to do a four-year course and to spend the third year abroad studying their subjects at a foreign university.
I have been teaching science students on that course economics and current European affairs for the past 10 years. I have found it extremely interesting to talk with the students, both before they go and after they come back. As you might expect, it is a very eye-opening exercise from their point of view. They are science students—many of them have done nothing but maths, chemistry, physics or biology since the age of 16—and I am amazed and appalled at how little they know about the way in which Britain operates, let alone about the world as a whole and the development of the European Union.
When they set out, one of the issues that hits them immediately is the contrast between the higher education systems—the huge size of lectures, the lack of any personal contact with members of staff, the lack of laboratory work if they are science students. But they also benefit enormously from the experience because it is a different world. They are nearly always hit by the rigour of the scientific studies in these countries. In mathematics they frequently have to drop a year—sometimes even more—in order to keep pace with the mathematics required. Although there is not the practical work, they benefit from being taken into the laboratories of the host university to do a special project and to write it up, which they are expected to do. They return more mature, much more understanding of other cultures and much better citizens, not only of Britain but of the world. We are spending something like £34 billion a year on education. I think spending £34 million on this particular scheme is infinitely worthwhile.
Let me put in a good word for the students we receive. The report notes the imbalance between those whom we send abroad and those who come to this country. I echo entirely what the report says about extending the teaching of languages in this country and extending the opportunities, such as we have at Sussex, for students to spend a year abroad—as, if you like, the wandering scholars—in foreign universities.
2128 It is also enormously valuable for us, as teachers, to have these students in our classes. If I am teaching about enlargement in the European Union, having a German student there to talk about issues such as the problems that Germany has faced in embracing the old East Germany into the new Germany, is enormously valuable. It acts as a catalyst; it gets the whole class talking. It is much better than my preaching at them. It is real experience.
In almost all the classes that we hold on the subject, there is at least one and often there are two visiting students. They are enormously useful and valuable people to have in the class; they are delightful. They also wonder at the contact that they have with members of staff in this country. I remember one of the French students saying to me, "You know, Madame la Professeur, we see our teachers but they have separate staircases to the rostrum so that they can lecture and do not have to rub shoulders with us students." Visiting students enjoy and benefit from being treated as more equal members of society in our tutorial system, which is a very valuable part of British education.
Let me end by saying that I endorse this report thoroughly. I welcome its very positive attitude to the Erasmus-Socrates scheme. I hope that other noble Lords will welcome it also.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, particularly as I was not able to be present when she made her maiden speech here last night. I welcome her to this House most warmly, not least for the contributions that she will be able to make on a subject such as the one we are debating this evening.
I speak as a member of the sub-committee which, under the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, undertook this inquiry. The inquiry was perhaps rather unusual. It did not concern a large and important issue of policy, such as the European Central Bank, which we debated here a couple of weeks ago. Nor was it one of those detailed investigations into a precise directive on a scientific or environmental matter. The document we were looking at was a Commission communication entitled Building a Europe of Knowledge. It recommends, inter alia, continuation and extension of existing programmes to promote student exchanges. It will require approval by the Council in due course.
Our preliminary discussions in the committee suggested that issues of long-term importance might be involved. After a good deal of preliminary deliberation we decided to take a closer look. This decision in itself was not easy. Some of our number doubted whether it would be possible to extract the necessary data and statistical information. But we thought that the questions involved were sufficiently important to justify the risk, and so I believe it has proved.
We were greatly helped by the personal interest taken by the Minister, whose valuable evidence and widespread experience was made available to us. She also facilitated the production of evidence by her department's officials, which was quite essential to our 2129 work. In addition we had the benefit of the personal knowledge of some of our own members: the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, Lord Smith of Clifton, and our chairman stand out in my recollection.
We saw some very interesting witnesses. I would especially commend to your Lordships Professor Ulrich Teichler of Kassel University, whose evidence on page 72 is of particular interest.
What are the issues here? There are many. In part, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, pointed out, they are financial. To what extent should official resources, British or European, be used to encourage the flow of students between the various member states of the European Union? If the flow is uneven—and it certainly is—should we seek to correct the imbalance; and if so, how? There are more strictly educational matters to think about. If, as it appears, the imbalance is caused by a reluctance of British students to enter degree courses abroad because they feel that their linguistic skills are inadequate, should we attempt to improve those skills; and, if so, how?
The Government's response to our report approaches these issues in a balanced and co-ordinated way. I notice that the department has no hesitation in adopting the celebrated 1066 and All That classification. Student exchanges, like Magna Carta and the execution of King Charles I, are a "Good Thing" and deserve encouragement and support, but, the department seems to say, we should not get carried away into the realms of dangerous enthusiasm. It sensibly welcomes the Commission proposal to continue existing programmes and to improve them in a practical manner—very much a Whitehall sentiment. As to imbalance, the Government suggest that it is,unrealistic to expect complete parity",in student exchanges. That is a sage observation, but I do not think anyone has been so rash as to make that suggestion. However, they will seek a bilateral meeting with the Commission in order to bring about improvements.
There is nothing objectionable in these responses and I suppose we can take comfort from the knowledge that, if the corpse of Jeremy Bentham is still on display at University College, his utilitarian principles remain alive and well in the Department for Education. I hasten to deny any implication that the Government's reply was drafted by the sub-committee. But, for me, there is one important missing dimension, and my purpose for intervening in this debate is to suggest what it is.
Looking at this matter as a student of foreign policy, it seems to me that the success of the European Union over the long term will depend on our ability to train successive generations of citizens in a broader understanding of each other than is the case at present. This is, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, what France and Germany have been attempting to do bilaterally, and with considerable success, over the past 35 years on the basis of the Elysée Treaty. I should like to see this sort of effort reproduced on a multilateral basis. There is no better way of doing this than by encouraging a steady flow of students to conduct some of their courses in foreign universities. This is not 2130 always easy, because students are serious people who are interested in their subject for its own sake and seek to obtain a qualification in it which will launch them on a career based on some specialised knowledge. Linguistic skills are sometimes, but not always, a step on that road.
Foreign students come to this country for a variety of reasons, but it would seem for two reasons in particular. First, they come to benefit from the high quality of our universities and the personal supervision which they receive here. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, our teachers supervise their pupils personally, rather than lecture to mass audiences as so commonly happens in Continental universities. So British universities are good value for money. Secondly, the incoming students acquire the English language which, as the noble Lord, Lord Elibank, said, is so useful in the world today.
Statistics were made available to us. They show that some of these students are even prepared to put up with our weather and our cookery in order to obtain these advantages. British students, per contra, are often reluctant, even when the climatic and gastronomic factors are weighed in the balance, to give up the advantages they enjoy in their own country, including the support in so many cases of their own families. Now we are not the losers in importing more students than we export. Our Continental neighbours would be delighted to obtain the result we have, and they do indeed spend large sums in efforts to attract foreign students.
But we are losing out in a different way. The relatively small outflow of British students means that the next generation of leaders in our professions, trade unions and businesses will lack a sufficient number of staff who have the advantage of having studied abroad in the past and thus have the ability to contribute strongly to the policy work and context of their organisation, because they understand the culture, attitude and language of the nations in which they seek to do business. To my mind—here I must disagree with my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Elibank—this is the area on which we need to concentrate most and where we have most to gain.
To improve this situation, we need to develop language learning in our schools. This would not necessarily mean spending more money but it would mean spending money more wisely. Should we seek to make it normal to expect university graduates to obtain a reasonable facility in one foreign language as part of a first degree course? Myself, I do not regard that as an unreasonable objective in the modern world. I am pleased that the Government support our suggestion that we arrange summer courses to help those preparing to study in a foreign university. The important point, which I do strongly stress, is to recognise that the target we are aiming at is very significant, and that reasonable success in reaching this goal would have very beneficial effect for the country as a whole.
Views on this subject are obviously much affected by personal experience. In my 36 years spent in government service, I worked in seven missions abroad, which involved using six different languages. In only 2131 one of those, Germany—I leave out the United States—did I have a reasonable competence in the native language on arrival in post. I was not a professional linguist but I tried hard to achieve a good standard in the language in each country. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, that I do think that the Foreign Office takes the study of foreign languages far more seriously than he implied in his Question last week. I think that his view may have been based on his knowledge of what happens in Lithuania and the other Baltic states, which are a rather special case.
I did not always succeed in my objective but I used to set myself the personal target of trying, within one year of arrival, to be able to write a leading article-type of composition in the local language, expounding the local reaction to some wholly unexpected event. To do this, you had to understand the way in which local opinion would react and to write and talk about it in that language.
An example I remember was Brazil in the early 1960s, when Brazilians were suffering from price inflation of up to 100 per cent. per annum. I asked myself how they would react to a decision by the Bank of Brazil to peg the cruzeiro to the US dollar. Of course, no Brazilian politician, thinking of the next elections, would dream of anything so rash. But the intellectual exercise was quite useful, not least in this case because it enabled my excellent language teacher to instruct me in the correct use of a rare tense in the Portuguese language, the future subjunctive, which I have not encountered anywhere else. It carried a strong sense of continuing uncertainty and doubt which was entirely appropriate in the circumstances.
I hope your Lordships will forgive this stray reminiscence. I recite it for a serious reason. Students in foreign universities will carry away with them a knowledge and understanding of that country which will never be lost to them. I do believe that if we can increase the number of British students in foreign universities, we shall be creating a valuable resource for them personally and shall make a useful contribution to a more rational and peaceful Europe.
§ 6.18 p.m.
The Earl of Carlisle
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. I agreed with every single word he said. In a recent Parliamentary Question I asked how many of our 202 heads of legations abroad could speak the language of the nation to which they are accredited. The answer was 50 per cent. That reflects exceedingly well on a most remarkable organisation—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—which moves its senior mandarins around every two or three years. I hope that it will continue to set that magnificent example. I point out that in a space of just two or three months our ambassadors to the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are speaking a "survival" version of the local languages.
I thank my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for enabling us to take part in the debate this evening and 2132 for introducing it with his customary rigour and clarity—a hallmark, may I say, of this report and of the committee which produced it. I hope that the report will be widely read and circulated not only in British universities but also in our secondary schools. I hope that the main points will be taken up in those places where young people are studying for A-levels and deciding upon their university courses—that is, those who are fortunate and skilful enough to be awarded a place—and also in the European Commission and in other member states. I hope that the Minister and her department will study the report with care, take note of its recommendations and, most importantly, where it affects us all, implement them. Some of the recommendations can only be implemented by the European Commission. When the Minister concludes the debate, I hope that she will be able to inform us when and where she expects the Commission to act.
If I have one quibble with the report it is that perhaps it does not give enough stress, although there is some, to the enlargement process. For example, between 1996 and 1997, I learned from a report, of the 85,210 people from overseas who took part in the scheme we have been discussing only 1,507 were from nations which were formerly occupied by the USSR. I can give your Lordships two examples of where the scheme has benefited individuals coming from overseas. The first is a Mr. Vaher Soosar from the foreign ministry in Estonia. He is 26 years of age and took a course in economics at Green College University. He has now gone back to his country to head the Central Asian desk in his foreign ministry, dealing with an extremely turbulent area of the world. He came to this House, met people and said afterwards, "I have received enormous value and great knowledge of this country. I have improved my language. I have seen and met members of your Foreign Office, and I am determined to follow and put into practice in my foreign ministry the good, positive lessons that I have learned."
My second example concerns an historian, a Mr. Ilimar Ploom, who is currently at Tartu University. He spent a year at Queen's College, Oxford, studying the Conservative Party from Peel until the present time. He wrote his thesis at Tartu University on the subject of F.E. Smith/Lord Birkenhead, social reformer. That is how he looked upon Birkenhead. He met the noble Lord, Lord Blake, in the Peers' Guest Room. The noble Lord quietly assured him that F.E. Smith had other great virtues and that that of social reformer was not the one we prominently associated with the name of that noble and learned Lord who once sat on the Woolsack.
The scheme has benefited Europe, the United Kingdom and our universities, especially those undergraduates and graduates who have been able to take part. Not only have member states needed to co-operate but universities, as well as their staff and their consumers, have also had to co-operate. The Commission's claim that education and training programmes have given meaning to the notion of a European dimension is well founded. As a result of the programme, we have achieved a greater sense of European citizenship and shared values.
2133 I should like to focus on two points raised in the report. The first is one upon which other noble Lords have dwelt; namely, the imbalance. It is claimed that UK students undergoing three-year degree courses abroad who take a year off as it is called—wrongly and incorrectly, in my opinion—in the second or third year to study at another European university on the Continent are penalised. Looking back over 28 years since I studied for a degree in modern history, I can say that I would have given a year's pay to have spent a year away from my university studying in a French, a German or an Italian university. However, the opportunity was not available because the scheme was not in existence at that time. Moreover, my knowledge of those languages was insufficient at that point.
I hope that the Minister will encourage, exhort, persuade, entice but not bully the Comittee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals at the universities of the UK to ensure that those students who opt to take a course abroad should far from being penalised in their degree grade, be regarded as having special merit for their achievements and diplomas from Continental universities. If they have done well in their studies, so be it. However, I hope that they will also have done well as ambassadors for their country. Indeed, as has been pointed out, they will come back with better knowledge of those countries and will be able to put that to good use in the future over, say, five, 10, 15, 20 years or until they reach the grave. For that reason, and with great respect, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Elibank.
I am pleased that our students are no longer penalised financially by undergoing courses at other European universities. Can the Minister reassure us that that will continue to be the case? Further, does the noble Baroness see her department offering any further financial incentives for our students who are studying abroad? If so, how and why?
I come to my second crucial point; namely, language training. I divide that into two components. The first is language teaching and the second is the learning of a foreign language. I declare an interest here. At the age of 45, four years ago, having failed twice overwhelmingly to be elected to another place I applied, and was accepted, to train at that excellent establishment, Sheffield Hallam University. I attended and passed the TEFL course, the teaching of English as a foreign language. The final hurdle of a six-week course was to be put in a classroom with 35 pupils, none of whom could speak English. They were immigrants. In my class, 16 of the 35 were of different nationalities. One had to give two one-and-a-half hour lessons. Sitting at the back of the classroom was one's instructor. One sank or one swam. This was Sheffield University's present, if you like, to the people of Sheffield—the training of immigrants in our language.
I passed the course and learnt more about teaching and about myself during those two lessons than I had learnt elsewhere. I also learnt that if other immigrants can bother to learn our language, then surely we can learn other languages with all the opportunities that we have. Indeed, our people can learn the language of a neighbouring nation.
2134 Moreover, I make the following point with no boasting but with a certain amount of pleasure. At the age of 48, when I went to Estonia to teach the English language to a Baltic battalion—a peacekeeping company of the Estonian nation—I began to learn their language. I shall not explain, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, did, certain differences between our languages. I just say that the Estonian language has nine vowels while we have five. Their language has no determiner and no future tense, despite the fact that they have a great future. Moreover, they have 14 different case endings.
How did one learn? Perhaps the answer will help other people. I learnt from the Bible which fortunately I had been taught. Indeed, those who know the Bible well will recognise what is coming next. To learn Estonian, one should read the Estonian Bible. While in Estonia I also noticed that at five o'clock in the evening, which is prime television time, there was a comic strip programme for children; that is, for Russian and Estonian children. Those programmes had subtitles so that one could learn and follow the dialogue. I also watched many episodes of "Santa Barbara" and "Neighbours", which carried subtitles. It is the visual and the hearing that helps one to learn a language.
Finally, I turn to the question of textbooks. I believe that the range of textbooks in our primary and secondary schools needs to be reviewed. Until we put more investment into learning foreign languages from primary school onwards, we will not build on sure foundations a Europe of knowledge.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, I must apologise for missing the first part of the speech of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire but I am reassured to learn that it was characteristically coherent and comprehensive. I must declare some interests as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster which participates to a great extent in the Erasmus-Socrates programme. I am also chairman of the United Kingdom Socrates Council.
We very much welcome the report, as does the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. It was produced quickly and well. It is a timely report because of the new programme that is emerging from Brussels. It served to tighten the sinews of the major actors: the DfEE, the CVCP and the universities. We had possibly allowed ourselves to take things too much for granted and I think that we are now more seriously pondering the problems that have been highlighted which might not otherwise have received attention. We welcome the fact that the Government have agreed a major relaunch of the programme some time in the future. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for that.
Members of your Lordships' House have drawn attention to the biggest issue: that of imbalance. I believe that European Union enlargement will exacerbate the problems of imbalance. The member states from eastern Europe will swell the numbers of those students wanting to study in the United Kingdom. As many noble Lords have noted, the outward 2135 participation from the United Kingdom is falling. While the committee does not favour seeking compensation from the European Union, a programme where one member state alone, the UK, accounts for over 40 per cent. of all the participation cannot be in the best overall interests of the European Union itself and cries out for examination by Brussels to see what can be done. For all the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Elibank, mentioned, I think we must recognise that we shall continue to attract vast numbers but somehow we need to contrive systems which relieve the pressure. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, referred to the financial pressures, which are real, but we must also understand that the Erasmus programme is under-financed and under-capitalised. The unit of resource is getting lower and lower as Brussels endeavours to stretch it further and further. Therefore there are real financial and economic issues to be addressed.
The most important recommendation is Recommendation 196 which calls upon the Government to provide funds for language classes for would-be participants in the Socrates programme. My noble friend Lord Carlisle referred to his own experiences in language acquisition. It is important that we should get away from the notion that you have to be absolutely fluent in a language to be able to participate. Opportunities must be created and seized to enable our intending students to have that basic confidence which may result in their applying in greater numbers than has hitherto been the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Elibank, referred to a hypothetical engineering student who might think twice about going to Italy. The University of Ulster has the largest single Erasmus programme for environmental scientists. We take in 90, and send out 70 on average per year. Environmental scientists, by definition, would benefit from going almost anywhere. As regards engineering where resources are scarce, we should not be so supremely confident that our own engineering facilities both in industry and in the universities are of such a state of the art quality that our students cannot learn from engineering best practice in member states of the Union. It is a foolish and parochial attitude to nurture such ideas. My noble friend Lady Sharp referred to her own experience of teaching students. A student who spends a good length of time in one of the member states comes back two inches taller. Such students have an immense confidence and if they never visit that country again they will nevertheless be equipped with lifetime skills which will hold them in good stead.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Elibank, sought to persuade the Minister to punish, kick or force the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to give due recognition to qualifications and time spent abroad. The United Kingdom is in the vanguard of credit accumulation and transfer schemes. We bend over backwards in this regard. Many universities, including my own, award additional certificates and diplomas to those who have participated in such schemes. Therefore I do not believe we are slouches as regards trying to facilitate this kind of student mobility and interchange.
2136 From my perspective, I believe that the United Kingdom is extremely well served by the work of the director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council, Mr. John Reilly, whose comprehensive evidence to the committee must be seen for what it is. Not only do he and his staff manage a complex national programme with great efficiency but he is also the acknowledged doyen amongst the European Union core of national organisers. He has a real passion for promoting the idea of European student mobility while being ever diligent about the UK's interests. The higher educational world is fortunate to have his energy and expertise at its disposal.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I begin by offering apologies for my noble friend Lady Blatch, who has an unavoidable engagement. I also offer apologies for my noble friends Lord Pilkington and Lord Inglewood, both of whom served on the committee. My noble friend Lord Pilkington is away in the country organising the placing of his wife's gravestone. My noble friend Lord Inglewood is out of the country.
This has been an excellent and fascinating debate. We on these Benches are delighted to welcome the report and take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and his committee, for their dedicated and detailed work. We also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the Government for finding the time to hold this debate. The report will make an important contribution towards the development of a new programme to replace the Socrates-Erasmus programme, which comes to an end in 1999.
I believe the committee was wise to focus its attention on two important strands. First, it addressed questions of principle rather than detail. It is right to consider some analysis of the aims and achievements of the programme as well as examining, through British interest groups, the hope for, the aspirations of, and indeed the commitment to, the new programme. The second strand, of course, addressed more detailed questions from the standpoint of the UK. It is clear from the report that the issue of imbalance created by the movement of students into and out of the UK occupied much of the committee's attention. As is customary for committees of this House, the structured way in which the committee approached its task was commendable.
The flow of questions set out on page 9 chart a constructive course from the strategic to the detailed issues that needed to be considered if the analysis, conclusions and recommendations were to be sufficiently forward looking and at the same time to be capable of being delivered by participating countries in a way that was both affordable and achieved the stated aims and objectives. The committee was also right in taking account of those students who study abroad outside the Socrates-Erasmus programme.
In the Commission communication, Building a Europe of Knowledge, I was pleased to see the stated aims of linking policies of innovation, research, education and training to boosting economic activities 2137 as well as bringing personal fulfilment and increasing the employability of young people. Unemployment throughout the Community, although at lower levels in the UK, is unacceptably high. The focus of the communication embraced not only the physical mobility of students and staff but also "virtual mobility", as it is known in the jargon, achieved by a more imaginative use of new technology. Co-operation between institutions was addressed by the report, in addition to the vexed issue of language skills—a point of particular significance for the UK.
Like my noble friend Lord Elibank, I believe that there is a world of difference between students from most parts of the world, not just from European countries, coming to the UK to study and UK students leaving these shores to study abroad. The obvious point is made well: that the universality of the English language brings with it a confidence to undertake study in the UK using English as a second language.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I welcome students from abroad, and I have a particular reason for so doing. The bold step taken by a young Ukrainian woman has given my family a much-loved and wonderful daughter-in-law. It was with great pleasure, delight and pride that we heard that she had been awarded her doctorate in linguistics at Lancaster University a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, there is as yet not a large enough cohort in the UK of young people who are sufficiently proficient and confident in a second language to take the step of studying abroad.
The report, however, points out that language was not the only attraction of British higher education to overseas students. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that foreign students appreciate many aspects of our higher education system, including our shorter three-year degree courses, less crowded campuses, generally better staff-student ratios and, as mentioned, more effective pastoral care for students.
The language problem for UK students is dealt with in some detail in the report. The introduction of a foreign language as a compulsory subject in the national curriculum is producing an increase in the number of young people reaching the age of 16 with some competence and skill. However, the number of students taking a language at A-level continues to fall. That is worrying. One factor appears to be the decline in foreign language assistants. Noble Lords will see that the committee firmly recommends an increase in their numbers. As an aside, I was interested to see that the fall was mainly across the state sector; there was an increase in the independent and grant-maintained schools. That is another very strong argument for schools to enjoy as much financial responsibility as is possible.
The issue of teaching languages in the primary schools is difficult. However, it needs to be said that many primary schools do in fact either teach a foreign language or run foreign language clubs as an extra-curricular activity. That is to be welcomed. However, until there is a large enough pool of students leaving school competent in a foreign language at both GCSE and A-level from which language teachers can be 2138 recruited, it will not be possible formally to include a foreign language in the primary curriculum. There are approximately 20,000 primary schools, and that requires large numbers of staff. In spite of that, it remained a policy aim of the previous government to extend language teaching to the primary schools.
Another welcome sign is the growing number of higher education institutions which offer students the opportunity to learn a language irrespective of their primary course of study. Perhaps HEFCE could focus more attention on that aspect of higher education funding.
The committee concluded that the Erasmus programme had benefited the UK. It regarded such education interaction as an investment. It rightly warns the EU that to propose ambitious programmes without commensurate funding would be,to build castles in the air".The committee makes the interesting point that, although there is an imbalance of students in and out of the UK, nevertheless we are fortunate to attract high numbers of overseas students. The issue as seen by the committee is to increase the number of UK students leaving these shores for study abroad. More use of periods of study abroad was encouraged by the committee, with a call on HEFCE to consider that and to press universities to be more proactive in encouraging students to learn foreign languages.
Recommendation 198 takes a tough line on whether the UK should be compensated for the net inflow of students. The committee concludes that the answer lies in the improvement of language teaching and increasing the number of UK students studying abroad. However, that is a long-term solution and, meanwhile, our universities carry a substantial financial burden. That problem is here and now.
The committee makes reference to the perverse effect of tuition fees and the funding structure, a point to be considered by the government and HEFCE. Pressures for the new programme to diversify are challenged in Recommendation 208. I hope the government will give weight to the concerns expressed by the committee on that issue.
There is an almost insoluble tension between the preservation of the viability of minority languages and the natural inclination towards studying in English. Persuading UK students to study in, for example, France, Germany and Spain is proving difficult enough; but to extend the numbers who study in, for example, Greek, Polish or Latvian calls for specially targeted projects.
It is clear from the excellent work done by the committee that the programme should continue. The committee concludes that the increased and more effective use of technology; better co-operation and co-ordination between and across participating institutions; improved language teaching; and some restructuring of funding by HEFCE will combine to increase the effectiveness of the new programme which will be put in place in 1999.
2139 I am sure that the noble Baroness will have received the briefing from the CVCP. I hope that she will take special note of its first point for subsequent action and its wish to take an active role in taking the committee's recommendations forward.
Finally, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallis of Saltaire, and all the members of his committee. The report that they have produced is an important document, as the development of the next stage of Erasmus is considered. I am sure your Lordships will agree that the exchange of students should be encouraged, as we all benefit from it. We on these Benches wish all those concerned well as they make their decisions to carry this initiative forward.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)
My Lords, we have had an interesting debate and I know that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for having introduced it and for giving your Lordships the opportunity to discuss the issue. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, I thank the noble Lord and all the members of the Committee for their report into Student Mobility in the European Union. It is a complicated issue, but the report is a model of clarity and extremely timely. It has helped the Government to prepare their position for discussion of the proposed Socrates II programme. It has been helpful in that respect.
I start by saying that I share the committee's view that the international dimension in higher education is important. It deserves the attention that the committee's report and this debate give it. It is a worthwhile aspect of higher education, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I shall not comment on the special value study abroad for British students of economics, although I have a little sympathy with what the noble Lord said.
I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that students benefit from a period abroad, not just in order to continue their studies in whatever subject it may be and learn about the culture of the country they are in, but also to learn about different systems of higher education. Similarly, incoming students from around the world, including the European Union, can learn from our system. It is very different from some of the systems they experience in their studies.
At the beginning of this month I was particularly pleased to be able to lead a delegation of representatives of UK higher education to the UNESCO world conference on higher education. I was able to put forward our view that higher education is increasingly an international enterprise. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development stressed the important role that higher education can play in creating sustainable development. That is again a very important role. The UK sponsored the student debate which enabled students from all over the world to play a part in that important conference. I was delighted to chair what turned out to be an 2140 extremely lively and stimulating exchange of views. In some ways, it was more lively and stimulating than the rest of the conference.
Before turning to Erasmus, it may be helpful to set it in the wider context of the Government's international higher education policy and, along the way, to pick up some of the points made during the debate that do not strictly fall within the remit of the report.
First, many British students study outside Europe under bilateral agreements between institutions. The UK Government have 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 for a whole three years or in some cases four years. We must, under EU law, treat these students no less favourably than students from the UK as far as tuition fees and institutional grants are concerned but not loans for their living costs. 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 or around the world. I am aware that some have argued that this imbalance is unsatisfactory.
On the positive side, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Elibank said, it is a vote of confidence in the quality of UK higher education, both by our own students and by others in the European Union. It encourages the European dimension to develop in institutions and exposes those students who do not themselves travel to an international atmosphere. It undoubtedly gives many future decision-makers a positive experience in the UK which they carry with them throughout their lives. There is much in what the noble Lord, Lord Elibank, said about it, but a great deal is being done to promote the value of British higher education and British further education around the world, not just in the European Union but outside. It is being carried out directly by vice-chancellors and principals and academic staff of British universities. But the Government too are involved. I have particular responsibility for the international aspect of my department's work and have made a number of trips abroad carrying out that form of export promotion.
Finally, there is the growing group of students from outside the European Union who are designated as "overseas" students, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred. The Government unreservedly welcome the students to the UK for their contribution to academic life in our institutions and for their contribution to the internationalisation of UK higher education. I do not think it unreasonable to expect that these students should fund the full cost of their higher education. However, the Government fund various schemes to support such students such as the Chevening 2141 scholarships. Many more students are, of course, sponsored by their own governments or by industry. Sometimes they pay for their studies in the UK themselves.
The Government recognise the long-term benefits for the United Kingdom from hosting these different kinds of students in the UK. The Government also welcome the initiative taken by Claude Allegre, the French Minister of Education, now known as the Sorbonne Declaration. This sets out in very broad terms the benefits that the signatories believe would accrue from adopting a similar broad "architecture" of higher education: bachelors or first degrees, masters degrees and then a doctorate. In this perhaps we in the UK are fortunate because the architecture proposed looks remarkably similar to the one already in place. The declaration does not prescribe course length and certainly not content of curricula.
The broad aim of a common architecture is to increase understanding of the signatories' higher education qualifications, making student, researcher and teacher mobility easier. It will also improve universities' opportunities to develop closer links with their counterparts in other countries.
I now turn to the substance of the report which is about Erasmus and the European dimension in higher education. I wish to respond to those recommendations that concern the Government. I shall not pick up those specifically directed at the Commission. We can, I think, all agree with the committee that the programmes have been successful and that the new programmes, when they emerge, will continue to play an important role. We can also agree that the United Kingdom has benefited from them.
The key point of the debate is the fact that more students come to the UK than go out from the UK, not just generally, but also on particular programmes. The committee rightly focused on the causes and effects of the imbalance and made some helpful suggestions as to action to tackle it. I wish to deal with three key areas: funding and student flows, external factors and the new programme itself.
As to funding of student flows and what some have called "bean counting", because of the reciprocal nature of Erasmus our institutions do not receive funding for incoming students. But they receive funding for their own outgoing students. In short, it is the institutions that bear the cost of the student imbalance through teaching more students for the same money. It is therefore in the end for the institutions to decide what level of imbalance is acceptable to them when weighed against the undoubted benefits of hosting students from elsewhere in Europe. The institutional contracts are freely entered into and institutions must, of course, fulfil their obligations.
The UK Government also pay a contribution to the European Union towards the cost of Erasmus. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington agrees when I say that for those reasons I believe it is right to seek maximum benefit for our students and institutions. The key point is whether or not the imbalance should be tackled. I agree with the committee that perhaps a 2142 little more can be done. I also agree that in some ways the imbalance represents a lost opportunity for UK students. However it is important to be realistic. Here I make two points. First, demand for places in the UK is very high for a number of reasons. The UK offers world class higher education and also has the benefit of the English language which is increasingly the lingua franca in many fields. For many young people around the world it is the first language they learn after their own. For those reasons—the quality of our institutions and the fact that we speak English—we believe it is unlikely that the high demand will diminish.
Secondly, UK students already participate broadly in proportion to the numbers that one would expect for our population. In that sense the imbalance is not as bad as one may imagine. Taken together this means that complete parity is unlikely to be achievable. But that is not to say that we cannot do more to encourage our institutions and students to take part in Erasmus. I agree with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, who spoke for vice-chancellors and his colleagues, that a great deal is already being done by our universities although I am sure many accept that other things can be done. However, I do not agree with the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, that UK students studying abroad were being penalised. I know of no evidence of that. The noble Earl spoke a great deal about Estonia. Perhaps he is not aware that Estonia is not part of the Erasmus programme, at least not yet. It may be in future.
As evidence of the Government's positive attitude I was able to announce to the committee a concession on fees for UK Erasmus students who undertook a full academic year of study abroad. This concession provides an incentive for students who pay no fee in that year and for the institutions who receive the full £1,000 towards the tuition of the incoming student. I believe that to be a significant concession. We shall monitor its effect closely. I say to the noble Earl that no further financial incentives are currently planned because this is a significant development.
I point out to my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington that the Government are aware of the costs involved in supporting these programmes. We shall weigh the costs and benefits of those programmes when we consider the new Socrates programme and how much money should be spent on Socrates II. I shall not enter into the larger issue of the European Union budget which I believe is a debate for another time.
I turn to the external factors that affect participation rates. Certainly, a positive atmosphere is important. During our presidency of the European Union in the first half of this year the Government stressed the importance of employability in a European context and, within that, the vital role to be played by education. Our approach in presenting the positive opportunities available in Europe and in providing supporting material for schools won many plaudits as well as some criticism from those who want nothing to do with Europe.
2143 The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and other noble Lords referred to the vexed issue of languages. Much is made of our students' inability or lack of confidence in another language. I accept that that exists. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, suggested that not enough young people studied languages at A-level. I accept that the numbers are not as high as they might be and that there have been declines in some but not all modern languages. But I recently announced changes that will broaden the A-level curriculum to allow more subjects to be studied, including languages. I hope that when we have a system where students can study five subjects in the first year of their sixth form schools will encourage them and that those who at the moment do not take a language will do so at least to A-level.
I am encouraged by the spread of "languages for all" strategies in many and universities and colleges. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, which organises the foreign language assistants programme for schools, has been concerned about the use of foreign language assistants in our schools. It undertook a survey a couple of years ago and is now taking action to try to arrest and reverse the decline in the use of foreign language assistants in our schools. It is promoting them and disseminating good practice with outreach of various kinds. We hope that there will be some restoration of those numbers.
We need to do more to make the programme better known. I welcome very much the input from the UK Socrates Erasmus Council and the work that the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, is doing with that council. We have discussed several ideas, including a high profile relaunch to coincide with the introduction of the new programmes in January 2000, to which the noble Lord referred. We shall continue to support the work of the council in raising awareness and encouraging participation. I can confirm that the department will also publish an updated guide to the opportunities available, including all of the new participating countries. This will be available to all students and to everyone who is on the internet.
I should like to deal now with the structure and operation of Erasmus. We recognise, as does the committee, that there is scope for improvement and that that improvement can benefit UK students and institutions. We have been playing an active part in negotiations with our partners in Europe in the structure of the new programmes, including Socrates II which contains Erasmus. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, who asked about the Commission, that we are vigorously pursuing the principles of responsiveness, decentralisation and flexibility that the committee rightly stresses in its recommendations. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington will also be glad to hear that. We also hope to see greater stability and less paperwork for the institutions and more decisions taken at national level. We also need to see better provision for people with disabilities. I endorse very much what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has said about this, although he is not in his place at the moment. I have also asked my officials to send a copy of the 2144 committee's report to the European Commission and to seek a bilateral meeting in order to discuss its content and recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, who is an expert on Whitehall, has drawn attention to the spirit of Jeremy Bentham which he detects in the drafting of the Government's reply. But I hope he will agree that it is a thoughtful and balanced reply that may even gain the support of my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. If it does that I believe that it will have achieved something.
I conclude by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and the committee for its authoritative report.
§ 7.9 p.m.
§ Lord Wallace of Saltaire
My Lords, I, too, thank all those who have taken part in the debate, in particular the Minister, not only for her constructive speech but her helpful attitude throughout the inquiry and the evidence that she gave to the committee during the course of that inquiry.
The purpose of the Select Committee's report is to fuel the European Union debate and to alert Her Majesty's Government to some of the underlying issues, which Ministers, who are always immensely pre-occupied, may perhaps not otherwise have grasped. It is necessary to investigate the consistency of Government policy and to stir things up a little. We may possibly have stirred things up a little in London and Brussels, and perhaps even in a number of Britain's higher education institutions. If we have achieved that, we have done our job.
A number of useful comments have been made. I would like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Elibank, that next week I shall be going to Frankfurt to lecture to banking students from across the European Union. Quite often, when I am in Frankfurt, I am pained by how much less international the young people from British banks are compared with their colleagues on the Continent. If we wish to be an international financial centre and to have international companies flourishing in Britain, it is important that we have young people, not just teachers, but also financiers, professionals and company executives, who understand the world outside Britain.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for her remarks about the European studies course at Sussex University. I declare an interest. My wife is a professor in that faculty. From what she has told me, I am conscious that the number of applicants to study those combined courses is currently falling. That is another area that ought to concern us. Students learn from each other. British students who go abroad expand their horizons, and that can feed back into this country's prosperity. Therefore, it is a public policy priority to encourage more British students to study abroad. That is part of our underlying message. Having said that, I commend this Motion to the House.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.