HL Deb 14 July 2004 vol 663 cc1239-42

2.48 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

What implications for their higher education policy are presented by the Bologna process to create a European higher education area.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland):

My Lords, we welcome the increased potential for mobility, of both students and researchers, afforded by creating a European higher education area. The structure and international merit of the UK's higher education system is already reflected in the Bachelors/Masters/PhD cycle envisaged by Bologna. We are actively involved in influencing the debate. Key action areas currently include developing the diploma supplement and contributions to discussions on qualifications frameworks and quality assurance systems.

Lord Quirk:

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Clearly, with events such as the Edinburgh seminar a couple of weeks ago, the Glasgow summit next May and the ministerial plenary session just after, not to mention the plans for a European research council, the pace is growing, as are the costs. She referred to the diploma supplement. Will the Government help universities with the additional costs to which they have already signed us up, such as the issue of a diploma supplement from next year?

More broadly, I wonder about the possibility of a culture clash between a British focus on outcomes and a continental fixation with inputs such as time of study. Now that 25 of the 40 Bologna countries are part of the EU, will the Government resist any pressures under which they may come from the European Commission towards a harmonisation that could interfere with the flexibilities of the UK system, such as our one-year Masters degree and quality control provisions?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, a focus on outcomes is absolutely critical. There is no conflict on the one-year Masters degree, which is something of which we are very proud. We continue to work with it, and there is no conflict with Bologna. There are no plans for a research council at present; the DTI is consulting on the subject, but no proposals have been put on the table. The diploma supplement is very much about additional information for students, which is important. We are talking to the universities, but I cannot make any commitments on funding. In general, it is to be welcomed that Bologna offers real opportunities for mobility.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, I invite the Minister to comment on the statement made by the president of Universities UK last night that: The UK Government, and most universities it must be said, have largely stood aside from the Bologna Process", so far. Do the Government now plan to have a much more serious and sustained engagement in the negotiations as they warm up?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, I was sorry to miss the speech of the president of UUK last night, but I have a copy. We have not stood aside. Our contribution in Bologna, Berlin and Bergen next year will be critical. We are very committed to the process, working closely with UUK to ensure that we provide the energy and support that it needs.

Lord Dearing:

My Lords, I do not recall the Minister answering the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, on whether the Government would strive to ensure that awards were based on outcomes rather than processes. Does she see scope within the framework of Bologna for recognition of an award such as a foundation degree, a distinct form of degree that serves to give standing to vocational awards throughout Europe?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, I said that there would be a focus on outcomes; I am sorry if the noble Lord did not hear me. The foundation degree is important, and we are the only country currently offering it. There is no conflict with Bologna, and we wish to see the foundation degree recognised fully for its contribution to lifelong learning.

Lord Harrison:

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the one-year MA courses in this country are important for encouraging overseas students to take advantage of the British university system, and that it would be a mistake if we moved to the two-year MA system of some of our continental colleagues?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, we believe that our one-year Masters system is strong and rigorous and is highly valued by international students. We would not wish to see a two-year requirement for a European Masters degree as that would leave us out of step.

Baroness Seccombe:

My Lords, can the Minister tell us the Government's policy on the further European integration of education?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, we see processes such as Bologna—where we have the opportunity to think about our higher education system and opportunities for mobility between researchers, teachers and students—as a good example of how best to develop the right kind of links in both a European economy and a global economy. Such opportunities are important also for schools.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe:

My Lords, in expressing my support for the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, perhaps I can declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK. As the Bologna process moves on, it is clear that the Government's involvement needs to be very much increased. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm the Government's support for the work of the UK-wide Europe unit and confirm that she will ensure that there is appropriate ministerial participation at Bologna summits; high-level official representation in Bologna forums; and practical support for the introduction of Bologna reforms in institutions?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, I can indeed offer my support to the work of the Europe unit—which I did not know about until yesterday, as I am not the Minister with responsibility for this policy area. However, I was delighted to hear of the work being done by Universities UK and the funding councils and the contribution that our senior officials are making to the committees involved. I can confirm ministerial involvement in the work that has gone beyond Bologna, for Bergen next year. We will continue to be in dialogue on the issues surrounding universities' involvement. However, I believe that the UK is already well placed.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood:

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that there is no further likelihood of an additional level of quality assurance regulation being imposed as a result of this? If she cannot do so, can she assure us that she would resist such an imposition?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, although I can assure the noble Lord that we would resist such an imposition, there are no such plans. Quality assurance is being worked on in the sense of collaborative approaches across Europe, not with any view to an over-arching European quality assurance system.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford:

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether there is any problem in accommodating the MEng degree—Master of Engineering—which is commonly taken in the United Kingdom by engineering students?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland:

My Lords, I know that concern has been expressed about the MEng degree. Nothing in the Bologna agreement or process should impinge on that in any way whatever.