Open Eye: Entente cordiale

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The Independent Online
The campaign for the elections to the European Parliament will expend much air and ink on the pace and direction of European integration. The OU has been engaged in the construction of its own common market for nearly two decades.

Last month another milestone was reached when the British Ambassador to France, Sir Michael Jay, hosted a splendid event at the Paris Embassy to mark the signing of an agreement between the OU Business School (OUBS) and the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The OU is both Europe's largest graduate business school and the international benchmark of quality for management education at a distance.

The Paris Chamber, which is the largest education and training organisation in France outside the state sector, will now offer French versions of OUBS courses. Christian Pierret, France's Secretary of State for Economics, Finance and Industry, expressing his satisfaction at the development of this alliance, said he hoped it would also lead to collaborative uses of information technology.

Although France pioneered popular telematics with its Minitel system, the government thinks that France is somewhat behind Britain in getting ordinary people to take to the Internet. It now has policies to close the gap and particularly welcomes the alliance with the OU in that context.

It is almost ten years since the OU Senate decided that the University would operate throughout the European Union and began setting up the infrastructure to implement that policy.

Today we can be proud of what has been achieved. There are now 4,500 OU students in the EU countries of continental Europe (and Switzerland) and more than 3,500 in the Republic of Ireland.

Those in western Europe come from a striking diversity of backgrounds. A recent survey revealed that they claim 99 countries of birth, and speak, between them, 60 different languages - including Latin and Hebrew.

Attitudes to the OU are as varied as in the UK. For some, the OU has been a life-changing experience, for others just a convenient opportunity for professional development of quality.

On average, continental students are rather better equipped with information technology and access to the Internet than UK students. This is perhaps just as well because, even with our best efforts, face-to-face tutorials are less accessible for these more dispersed students and the turnaround of assignments by post is slower.

Nevertheless, there is a high level of satisfaction with the overall OU experience. I have been impressed by the impact of these students on the OU itself. Irish students, in particular, have become thoroughly involved in the work of the OU Student Association and represent it on various University bodies.

Cars with other EU number plates are now a common sight at OU Summer Schools and I meet continental graduates at almost all UK degree ceremonies - whereas Scottish graduates seem to be particularly attracted to our Paris ceremony!

Providing services to students outside the UK has been an enriching and rewarding experience for OU colleagues.

The OU in the North, in Newcastle, which looks after EU students on the Continent, has become impressively expert in matters European for the benefit of the entire University.

By operating throughout the island of Ireland from a main office in Belfast and an enquiry office in Dublin, the OU in Ireland is helping to change attitudes and encourage cross-border working. In a more subtle and slower way the diversification of the OU student body in Europe is having a healthy effect in making both the OU curriculum and courses less UK-centric.

The University has always tried to promote equality of opportunity in the design and development of its courses by avoiding implicit assumptions about the gender, ethnic background and age profile of students.

The increasing national and linguistic diversity of the students challenges other assumptions and perspectives in a very positive way. In the last decade the OU's European strategy has concentrated on developing the infrastructure which is required to teach the curriculum in English across the EU.

The agreement with the Paris Chamber of Commerce takes us to the next stage in the OU's integration into Europe. This will involve partnerships that can make OU courses available in other languages and allow us to bring courses from other countries into the Open University.