Masters of Europe

A new European Masters programme that entails studying at a minimum of three universities has been launched by the EU. Should the United States be worried? Tristan Farrow reports
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The Independent Online

The export of UK education is big business. It provides the country with a source of revenue that exceeds sales of crude oil, insurance or aircraft. And one of the world's bestsellers has been the traditional British one-year Masters course. Now, the rest of Europe is waking up to the benefits of attracting foreign students too. Last year the EU launched its ambitious Erasmus Mundus scholarships for Masters courses - a European version of America's Fulbright scholarship scheme.

The export of UK education is big business. It provides the country with a source of revenue that exceeds sales of crude oil, insurance or aircraft. And one of the world's bestsellers has been the traditional British one-year Masters course. Now, the rest of Europe is waking up to the benefits of attracting foreign students too. Last year the EU launched its ambitious Erasmus Mundus scholarships for Masters courses - a European version of America's Fulbright scholarship scheme.

While the United States' global lead in exporting higher education might once have appeared unassailable, Europe is countering by funding its Erasmus Mundus scheme to the tune of £160m spread over an initial trial four years, to be completed in 2008. More than 90 per cent of this is earmarked for scholarships aimed at non-EU students and scholars. Critics might call this a modest proposal in the grand scheme of the global education market, but it is a declaration of intent. "The funding is fit for purpose," says Professor Wendy Davies, the pro-provost for European Affairs at University College London.

Erasmus Mundus offers Masters courses and scholarships to enable the best student from countries outside the EU to study at European universities. European students can also join the courses, but they have to be self-financing, except for relatively small travel funds. The universities involved must be members of an Erasmus Mundus consortium, consisting of a minimum of three higher education institutions from at least three European countries. Some consortia can contain up to six or more partner universities, but only higher education institutions based in the EU, the European Free Trade Area and the European Economic Area (EFTA/EEA) are eligible to join as fully paid-up members. Universities from countries outside the EU may take part via partnerships aimed at establishing closer academic cooperation, and to engage in exchanges of scholars over three-month periods.

Each consortium must offer an integrated Masters programme so that students spend at least one third of their course at another of the universities in the consortium. All courses lead to the award of a double or joint diploma valid in the countries where the institutions are based.

At £14,000 a year and a one-off relocation lump sum of about £3,500, the Erasmus Mundus scholarships, coupled with the opportunity to study at two or more European universities, look very attractive. The consortia are, however, allowed to charge tuition fees, which, argues John Reilly, the director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council, are necessary to maintain the quality of the programme.

The Masters courses that are given Erasmus Mundus status area chosen by a panel of academics appointed by the Directorate General (DG) of the EU Education and Culture Commission. This panel sifts through the proposals, paying particular attention to quality and facilities for overseas students, from housing to language-teaching, says Vito Borrelli, who is in charge of implementing Erasmus Mundus at the education DG. It also looks at the extent to which the various elements of the programme are integreated by the partner universities.

The variety of Erasmus Mundus Masters courses is astonishingly broad. There is a choice of 36 different degrees, ranging from applied ethics to high-tech subjects such as informatics. And, with the number of courses set to rise each year as more universities join, all interests will be catered for - the common thread through the courses being their applied and vocational nature and quality.

"We are very satisfied with the first results," says Borrelli. Although the budget was relatively limited in the first year, the launch of Erasumus Mundus was a big success with the media, he adds. An additional sum of €57.3m (£38.2m) reserved for Asia was added to the total budget. By 2008, the programme is expected to boast more than 8,000 students.

The Erasmus Mundus scheme extends the tried and tested Europe-wide Erasmus-Socrates scheme that sees imdergraduates go on exchanges between European universities. However, the new programme has set itself the target of raising the visibility of European academic institutions on the global higher education market, by insisting on the high quality and transparency of its Masters courses - so students know that what they are getting comes with a quality assurance. And, even if relatively small numbers of the applicants succeed in obtaining the Erasmus Mundus scholarship, those who apply are still likely to join a standard Masters course at one of the partner universities, explains John Reilly. The benefits of the scheme to the institutions involved will be greater than the infusion of money through the scholarships.

UK academic institutions have responded positively to the programme. They represent 15 per cent of the participants in the consortia and the biggest contingent from any single country. This is partly due to the fact that Britain has a track record of running Masters courses, catering for overseas students, and collaborating actively with higher education institutions abroad. This enabled UK universities to form consortia more readily and to bid for Erasmus Mundus status.

However, these figures do not reflect the deeper anxieties felt in academic circles about initiatives such as Erasmus Mundus, or the European inter-governmental Bologna Process, which is aimed at harmonising higher education across the EU.

Some fear that these developments could pose a threat to the distinctive appeal of British postgraduate education if the traditional UK Masters structure were forced either to come into line with the two-year programmes on the Continent, or if their one-year status made them look inadequate.

"Erasmus Mundus does not exclude one-year courses, although it is easier to get mobility within a two-year programme," says Tish Bourke, the manager of the Europe Unit of Universities UK. "Also, the UK Masters courses are very rarely less than 12 months, compared to 18 months [or two academic years] in Europe."

If you factor in skills, such as project and time management, that are required to complete a British Masters within its tight timescale, judgements on quality based on a course's length appear shaky. The Bologna Process sets no time restrictions on the length of graduate courses.

Even if there were a trend towards longer Masters courses, that could well turn out to benefit the UK because we would be seen as offering shorter, less costly courses. It could go both ways, says Jim Ewing, the chair of the National Postgraduate Committee, which lobbies on behalf of UK graduate students. "Many graduate schools rely on foreign students for funding," he says. "It will bring in new students, so it is to be welcomed. Let's hope it will be monitored, and, if successful, rolled out".

However, one cause for concern to UK institutions - and one to which they have not yet woken up - could be the fact that there is competition, says Howard Green, the chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education. "UK academics are not aware of the trends in the market for higher education".

The buoyant British market is helped by the US visa restrictions introduced after September 11 2001. Even France has started offering English-taught Masters courses, a sure sign of changing times. And countries such as Australia and New Zealand are very active internationally, attracting students from South-East Asia on the strength of the dominance of English as the global language of business.

'I HAVE ALREADY EXPERIENCED TWO UNIVERSITIES'

Anna Bozhko, 21, is taking a two-year Masters in hydro-informatics and water management on an Erasmus Mundus scholarship

"I'm from Russia. I studied civil engineering, at university in St Petersburg, specialising in renewable energy and power stations.

"I began the Erasmus Mundus course in October 2004, and took my first semester at the Brandenburg University in Cottbus, Germany. Now I'm taking my second semester at Newcastle University's school of civil engineering and geoscience. Next semester I'll be somewhere else. It could be Barcelona, Nice or Budapest. We have to change location a minimum of three times over the two years of the course.

"This year's group of students is the first so it's an experiment - there were no advertisements for the scheme before September and the organisers invited students to take part. There are 10 students from outside Europe - from Indonesia to Chile - and seven students from the University of Nice.

"Even after one and a half semesters I have experience of two new and different universities, and of different approaches and points of view. When I go to work it will probably be for an international organisation. I'll already have experience of international communication, and I'll be able to look at all those approaches and decide which is the best."

Tim Walker

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