asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether they support the initiative of the London School of Economics and the Institut des Sciences Politiques student unions to set up a European Student Alliance; and, if so, how they propose to encourage it.
My Lords, I declare an unremunerated interest as a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics.
I welcome the initiative taken by the students of the LSE and Sciences Politiques in setting up this link. The Government support imaginative initiatives such as this which promote European awareness. The initiative supports the Bologna process, which focuses on closer co-operation across borders and greater mobility of students and academic staff, with the objective of creating a European higher education area by 2010. We work particularly closely with the French Ministry through a memorandum of understanding on educational co-operation.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Perhaps he could be a little more forthcoming on how the Government might help. For instance, student unions believe that the initiative should be extended to other universities within the European Union through this European Student Alliance. What practical measures can the Government take to ensure that this is fulfilled?
My Lords, the noble Lord and, I hope, the House will know that there has been systematic encouragement through the National Unions of Students in Europe, which now operates as an umbrella organisation for 50 national unions of students in 37 countries. The members of this organisation represent more than 10 million students across Europe at its widest definition. We have encouraged this initiative both in the European Union at the Council of Europe and at UNESCO. We have encouraged almost all of the bilateral arrangements which have begun to emerge—for example, between the University of Kent and the University of Lille—and many other initiatives. We shall continue to do so.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a staff member of the LSE who has been involved in improving links with Sciences Po. Is the Minister aware that this welcome initiative goes against a worrying trend in the number of British students going to study in continental universities? The ratio is not improving, with the gap between those coming from the continent to study in Britain and those going from Britain to study on the continent continuing to widen. Can the Minister tell the House how initiatives such as this might be better helped by the Government to encourage more British students to study in other European universities?
My Lords, I am aware that there is an imbalance between those going from the United Kingdom to study in European and other universities and the larger number of those coming into the United Kingdom. However, I hope the House will agree that the flow of people from other countries coming here to study—to form their friendships, their future trading partnerships and the other relationships which are so good for this country—is a trend we should not discourage. Having said that, we must apply ourselves to ensuring that all initiatives, including bilateral initiatives, are encouraged and given the best possible chance of succeeding. The Bologna process should encourage a significant number of people to go abroad for at least one year to improve their languages and their knowledge of other cultures. It is a process that we intend to drive forward.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to the Dispatch Box for the first time. We are delighted to see her in her place today. Having said that, I am afraid that we have reached the point at which I start to disagree. I shall do so in the best possible taste.
I do not think that we are discouraging languages in the post-14 curriculum. Although this may go wider than the debate around this particular Question, I was able at an earlier Question Time to deal with the programme that the Government have initiated in post-school language education, not only in European languages but in Arabic and in the languages of the Far East, which are now absolutely critical to us. If we are candid about it, we have not had a great history of learning other people's languages. We must make sure that the programme that is in place is seen through into proper operation and that it succeeds.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that most foreign students understand the acronym for the London School of Economics to be "Let's See Europe"—particularly American students, who come in large numbers to the LSE. In that spirit and the spirit of the entente cordiale, is it not entirely fitting that the students' union—in which I spent four happy years hanging around as an alumna of the LSE—is doing exactly what we needed to do in establishing links with Sciences Po? Will the Minister assure the House that he will give this his full backing?
My Lords, my very first Answer was one of real encouragement for this initiative, and I repeat it, if that is helpful. Given the international ranking of the London School of Economics, I hope that people do a little more than hang around it, whether enjoyably for four years or not. Its record in research achievement and in teaching quality places it, by most measures, in the very top echelon of international universities, on which it is much to be congratulated. I believe that every other institution that makes a bilateral arrangement of this kind and encourages these kinds of exchange will probably climb up that international league table as well.
My Lords, the initiative between the LSE and Sciences Politiques is, on this occasion, independent. The European Union has had no role in it. We should not look for dark corners of the development of international exchange among students. I have no intention of introducing five educational tests before we go ahead with any of these programmes.
My Lords, given the predilection of students worldwide to oppose the government of the day in their countries, might there not be a possibility that faster progress would be made on the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, if the Government indicated that they disapproved of the event?
My Lords, I am very grateful for imaginative suggestions. However, I fear that it is too late, as we have shown in every way we can that we approve of this initiative. I believe that there is to be a large seminar or conference in London at the beginning of December for which we have indicated our fullest support. So I do not think I am in any position to resile from that now, even if it were to bring temporary relief to the students who heard about it.