What language can a Spanish student in Poland do his studies in? What about a Polish student in Spain? And a German in Sweden? A French student in Lithuania? The plethora of EU languages is actually an obstacle to the realisation of the European Higher Education Area, which is supposed to promote student mobility. As a result, everything suggests that English is going to serve as the lingua franca of European academia. But achieving that goal will require medium- and long-term investment (not only economic, but above all organisational – as well as plenty of political impetus), and will not be without complications.

In the first place, mobility means host countries have to invest in educating foreigners whose tuition fees in many cases (as in Spain and Germany) do not come anywhere near covering the actual cost of their studies. In effect, the host State is financing the education of neighbouring populations without receiving anything in return. This is a consideration member countries have yet to address.

The Erasmus model

Secondly, the range of courses offered in English (especially degree courses) is still meagre, particularly in southern European countries that have been dragging their feet for decades about the pending task of providing solid instruction in English.

This is the situation in which the EU finds itself three months away from the official launch in 2010 of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), for which 47 countries have signed up, after having agreed its creation in the 1999 Bologna Declaration. And to this day, the governments have yet to come up with policies and measures to overcome these obstacles.

English, lingua franca of academia

“Total mobility to pursue degree courses will remain the exception for many years to come, confined to highly prestigious universities and the odd degree course,” predicts the president of UNED (Spain’s National University of Distance Education), John Gimeno, who also chairs the International Affairs Committee of Spain’s Standing Conference of University Presidents (CRUE). “The Erasmus-type model is going to develop a great deal, that is to say students are going to study some courses in other EU countries, as well as double degrees from various universities, inter-university agreements.... But total mobility will still be many years in coming.

“Charles V used to say he spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to his dog. Nowadays he might add: and English to academia.” This anecdote prefaces the presentation of a seminar to be held this December in Brussels on university language policy strategies for the EU. A lot is at stake here for Europe. “Are we better off teaching in English?” the experts wonder. But several issues underlie this debate: How can we promote a lingua franca to further mobility whilst making sure those studying in a foreign language get solid academic training? To what extent will languages and cultures be weakened by an overly market-geared university language policy? And can these policies be rendered compatible with policies to promote European diversity and multilingualism?

To each country its own model

And at the other end of the field there are the British – on alert. The prestigious Times Higher Education recently devoted an editorial to the matter entitled “Everyone is talking the talk”. “The increasing use of English in higher education across Europe could cost the UK a vital competitive advantage,” it warns. So what if English were to become the lingua franca of European universities? “Clearly,” responds the UNED president, “the British supply won’t cover the current demand for studies in English; the slack is being picked up by the Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands, for example, which traditionally offer more courses in English.

The last and perhaps most important determinant of student mobility is funding. Who is really going to foot the bill for students who change countries? After all, state subsidies for degree courses are not equal throughout the EU. In Spain, tuition and registration fees at public universities average 12% of current subsidies, and the average subsidy per student is €5,000 a year. In Anglo-American countries, on the other hand, tuition fees correspond to 35% of average state subsidies. In the US, for example, the average annual subsidy in some states comes to roughly €20,000 euros per student. Each EU country has a different financial model, which only makes things more complicated.