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Head-scratching over budget hike

You might think that the European Union's largesse is not something to be sniffed at, especially when the UK is a beneficiary, as appears to be the case in the world of post-16 education.

But the EU's plans to treble the spending on its lifelong learning programme to more than l13 billion (pound;9bn) a year is creating more confusion than celebration in Westminster.

The Brussels approach to lifelong learning makes our own baffling domestic funding regime look simple by comparison.

The EU operates a number of programmes that sound like the answers to the kind of questions you get on University Challenge. Names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus and Gruntvig. What? You don't know who Gruntvig was? Oh, come on Balliol.

The cash is used for various worthy objectives - from allowing university students to spend more time abroad (travel broadens the mind etc) to promoting vocational and adult education.

When the House of Lords set up an inquiry to find out what these activities achieve, the omens were not good.

Lord Thomas of Walliswood opened the deliberations by saying: "I think some of us are finding it quite hard work to get through the original documents and understand what they are really about."

Five sessions and 255 pages of deliberations later, it seems the picture is little clearer.

At the latest hearing, further and higher education minister Kim Howells was before the committee, where he candidly admitted that he is yet to be convinced that Europe's bizarrely-named package of initiatives is worth the money.

"We are concerned about the size of the budget increase proposed by the European Union," he said. "l13 billion is an increase of 3.5 times current expenditure. We are concerned that EU programmes will add value.

"I can't quite see how contributor nations can support this if they can't explain to their voters what the benefits are going to be very precisely."

The really worrying thing is that much of Europe's generosity must be supplemented with match-funding from the coffersof the Department for Education and Skills.

Just how much extra money this will involve is unclear. Indeed, the DfES was still puzzling over its maths as FErret went to press. Email us

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