University of the Transmanche

It may only have six students, but this cross-border university has very big plans, writes Andy Sharman
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Take Nicolas Thellier, for example, who is studying for an MA in international management. "It's been marvellous," he says of his first year on the course. "I really enjoyed studying in Canterbury. I've met a lot of foreign students, from Greece to China to Africa, which has been useful since it is 'international' business. I've never seen such a well-organised course."

The teachers are equally impressed with their pupils. "The feedback I've had is that the students' academics are pleased," says John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council. "Tutors have been waxing eloquent about the quality of students in the business school."

Transmanche University is not short of well-wishers. Jacques Chirac has given his full backing, and, at the end of last month, all five institutions pledged their continued support for the operation at a meeting in Lille, attended by Kent vice-chancellor Professor David Melville. In addition, the programme has had £1.4m-worth of financial backing, appropriated by M. Chirac and Tony Blair at the 2003 Le Touquet summit, and £300,000 over three years from HEFCE, the university funding board.

However, three significant problems still plague the programme. First, there have been problems with getting the courses recognised the other side of the channel, where programmes have to be validated nationally. "We hit a time when all French programmes were being re-validated," says Melville. "The process was already underway before the Transmanche programmes could be incorporated."

Second, fees are a problem. The European Union stipulates that students on the same programme should pay the same fees. But while French higher education works on a regime of nominal registration fees and bursaries, the English students at the Transmanche are paying upwards of £10,000.

The question is, would French students pay if they were subject to fees of about €18,000? Thellier says yes: "Of course, now I know what it's all about." But this raises the third problem: a lot of people don't know what the project is all about. Scant, even misleading, marketing accounts for low student numbers.

But, as project co-ordinator Stephanie Green attests, "the Transmanche is always going to have a limited audience because of the demands for competency in both English and French."

And for all its shortcomings in terms of student numbers, the Transmanche project is not short on ambition. It seems that Melville wishes to build on the examples set by the Franco-Italian partnership between Grenoble and Turin, and also L'Université Franco-Allemande, which incorporates nearly 5,000 students on 115 courses at 133 institutions. "I expect this to be an iconic transfrontier institution," says Melville.

Much has been done to attract more applications: steps are being taken to establish doctorate programmes, and the first undergraduate courses are planned for September 2006. A marketing strategy has been implemented, which includes web links to the Transmanche site from Kent's homepage.

In addition, Reilly met with Daniel Vitry from the French Ministry of Education at the start of this month in order to solve the impasse over course validation. And to correct the fee-paying anomalies, the founders of the Transmanche envision a system based on the model set by Erasmus-Mundus, whereby fees are paid to the consortium and then distributed among member institutions.