Hands across the sea

British students now have the chance to study for joint degrees in England and France. Are they taking it? Lucy Hodges visits the University of the Transmanche

W alk into the sleek new foyer of the administration block at Kent University in Canterbury and you will be greeted with a stack of flyers for the new cross-channel university. An attractive couple smile out at you. Fancy a masters in international management taught in France and Kent? No problem.

This term the innovative cross-channel university opened to almost no hoopla. Students are now stuck into their two-year masters degrees, hoping that, after one year at Kent University and another at one of three French universities in Lille or the Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale (in Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk), they will have broadened their horizons, learnt a lot about one another's cultures and acquired degrees from a French and English institution.

The project has support from the leaders of both nations and from politicians across the spectrum. In fact, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac gave their blessing to it at the Le Touquet summit in 2003. "It is symbolic of the long-standing relationship between Britain and France as epitomised in the Entente Cordiale whose anniversary we are celebrating this year," says Professor David Melville, vice-chancellor of Kent University. "It should give us a new way of relating to France."

The University of the Transmanche is Melville's brainchild. When he arrived at Kent in 2001 he was struck by the university's location; it is closer to Lille than to London. So, reaching across the channel made sense. Its founders, who include John Reilly, Kent's director of academic administration and a fluent French speaker, decided to create something that could be a separate institution and eventually perhaps be hived off. They have big ambitions. At the same time as setting up the University of the Transmanche, they have been expanding Kent's campus in Brussels where they offer two masters degrees in international and European law. Through partnerships with the two free universities in Brussels, they also offer a masters degree in globalisation. The hope is that one day there will be links between the Brussels campus and the Transmanche campuses.

At the moment, however, the University of the Transmanche has only just spluttered into life with a mere 12 students taking only two of the six Masters degrees that were planned. (There is also an undergraduate degree in politics, philosophy and economics done with the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Lille, which has been going since 2002 with more students.)

But there have been big problems in getting the Masters programmes validated on the French side because course approval is done nationally rather than by the university. The French are restructuring all their courses to come into line with the European Community's Bologna Accord.

However, the two programmes that have begun - the MSc in palliative and chronic illness care and an MA in international management - were launched because they attracted students and could be got off the starting blocks without new validation. The MSc did not need validation by the French national authorities because it is viewed as vocational rather than academic and falls into a different category. And the management Masters is using French modules that have already been validated as part of other courses. The other problem is student fees. In general, the French do not pay tuition fees. They pay a "registration" fee, which is low. British universities, by contrast, charge.

The masters courses at the University of the Transmanche cost €6,000 (£4,300) for the palliative care MSc and €18,000 (£10,000) for the management MA. Because of the sensitivity of the French to paying for higher education, the French students on these courses have been awarded bursaries. This is something that will have to be sorted out, says Reilly. According to European law, students must have equal treatment with regard to fees or grants. Next month Education Secretary Charles Clarke will be meeting his opposite number to take the project forward and there are hopes that he will find a way.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the majority of students are studying the management masters - four Brits and four French people - because the usefulness of such a degree is clear: you learn the problems and practicalities of doing business in one another's cultures. Kent Business School is undergoing a major revamp at the moment, redesigning its MBA and getting ready to seek accreditation from the Association of MBAs. Professor Martyn Jones, the new dean of the school, hopes one day to offer an MBA through the University of the Transmanche.

"The early days of anything are absolutely seminal," he says. "I think there's a political will at every level to make this work because it's the most fantastic opportunity. We can be an open lung to Continental Europe and challenge the assumptions of the British towards the Continent."

For more information, ring 01277 824108 or e-mail or go to www.kent.ac.uk

'THIS MASTERS DEGREE COULD HAVE BEEN MADE FOR ME'

Gillian Robertson, 41, who has enrolled on the MSc in palliative and chronic illness care, lives in Sawbridgeworth on the Essex/Hertfordshire border and works as a palliative care nurse at Princess Elizabeth Hospital in Harlow

"I look after patients who have cancer or non-malignant tumours and help them to control the symptoms of their disease. I support them and their families psychologically and put them in touch with services that might be helpful. We're always being encouraged to do further professional development, and that's what this is. I was looking for something to do and details of this came through the letterbox at work. I happened to be the person who opened the envelope. The MA could have been made for me. We have a place in the south of France and I am interested in learning the French way of doing things. So far I have had one week at Kent University doing a module on concepts of palliation and chronic illness. Shortly we will be getting together with other Transmanche students. I am lucky because my employers are supporting me financially. I am also applying for a grant from Macmillian Cancer Relief. I think this university will take off. It will enable a lot of learning across cultures."

Nicholas Thellier, 23, who comes from Boulogne, has signed up for the MA in international management after having done a first degree at the Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale. He is undertaking his first module at the University of Kent and has been in Canterbury for three weeks. Eventually he would like to work abroad.

"I wanted to do this Masters to meet other students from all over the world. In the past few weeks I have met no English students but I have met students from Iraq, Cyprus, Greece and Canada. This is a really exciting adventure. I also came because of the way you teach in England. It's more practical. Here at Kent we have to talk a lot with the teachers and with other students and work in groups. That doesn't happen so much in France. I think the University of the Transmanche will be successful once it becomes better known. It was quite risky for the students signing up in the first year because they didn't know what to expect. There are four of us on this Masters course from my university. A lot more thought about it but didn't come because they were afraid of what it would be like."

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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