Frances Rafferty talks to Edith Cresson, the European Union's education commissioner who is fighting for the right of anyone to study in any member state
A quick dash across the Channel this month brought Edith Cresson, the European commissioner for education, training and youth, to London for two days.
During her visit the former French prime minister made a speech at the London School of Economics and Political Science and had lunch with the grande dame of the Department for Education and Employment - Baroness Blackstone.
She would not reveal whether the subject of tuition fees for higher education was mentioned, and did not want to be drawn on her opinion of the Labour Government's policy; but she did concede it could add to the obstacles already preventing students learning at universities in different member states.
Her office in Brussels has raised the issue with Mario Monti, the commissioner responsible for the internal market regulations, who said fee charges in the UK could increase red tape for continental students.
"Most European countries do not charge or if they do it is a very small symbolic amount. The commission can suggest, propose and help to encourage mobility of students in Europe, but education policy is still national policy," she said. The official line is that whatever applies to students in the UK should also be the same for students from other EU countries.
She said she appreciated the change in the UK's attitude towards Europe since the election of the Labour Government. "Without any doubt there is a very positive attitude and change of climate.
"We can discuss things much better - not that we always agree - but it is encouraging that the attitude is so positive and in the field of education this Government wants to make a very specific effort. I think this will be a great benefit to the British citizens."
She admitted that she does not envisage having any more big ideas in education during the UK's presidency, launched today. She sees it as a time for consolidation and completion.
"We have first to continue what has been started, that means to implement the Fifth Framework Programme for Research (a four-year programme backing research activities). It is still not very easy."
And there are the same old problems to deal with. One of the great bugbears for those espousing greater mobility of students within the EU has been the lack of progress in getting recognition of qualifications.
Only recently a graduate at Southampton University had to petition the European Parliament to get her BSc degree in astronomy and physics recognised so she could do a PhD at Madrid University.
Mme Cresson shrugged and said: "This is in the hands of the member states. We of course insist at the commission that when a student has spent a period of time in another country this should be recognised. European Union universities are very independent institutions and for the moment we do not have the possibility of making them comply."
She said there were other obstacles to mobility, for example, different tax and welfare systems.
The quintessentially chic commissioner had a shaky start to her job. But although she is mastering her brief much better, she is still criticised by politicians. One, who declined to be named, called her performance "underwhelming".
She points to a number of successful initiatives she has launched, including her "second-chance" schools which aim to rescue those who have failed or been rejected by the education system. A family learning centre in Leeds has been chosen as the UK's first and every member state now has one.
She said: "The schools will form a network and will be able to share experiences and build up a model - which is not a unique model. Brussels does not want to impose anything on anybody...I could repeat that several times, " she said with a smile.
It was only after some prompting from her official that she admitted the second-chance school scheme was not initially supported by every member state.
"Pouff," she said. "There is always opposition to everything...Yes the Germans and the Scandinavians ... but they all have one now. I opened the first in Marseilles which has had great support from businesses.
"Here specialists in working with 'problem' children and other agents from health and the social services work together. The pupils have to sign an agreement to show while they have rights, they also have obligations as well. They must say they will behave well and if they break something they must repair it. They are aged 16 and 17 and must learn to take charge of themselves. "
Mme Cresson has not enjoyed a wonderful press in the largely Euro-sceptic British media, and every time she is mentioned her alleged remark that all English men are homosexuals gets an airing.
"Pouff! I don't read the English press, apart from the Financial Times - and of course The Times Educational Supplement. The French papers are bad enough. "