Alchemy through acronyms

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Signe Hoffos enters the Brussels labyrinth to find out what the European Commission has to offer classroom teachers. Whatever else may happen next year, 1996 has been designated the Year of Education and Training, and the European Commission (EC) is preparing for the festivities.

This has a certain significance, in that education has traditionally been one of the few areas where Europe's government has left matters largely in the hands of its individual member states. The EC's increasing involvement with education reflects some significant changes in Europe as a whole.

The European Commission is the largest of the six bodies which comprise the European Community. (The other five are the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the Court of Justice, the Court of Auditors and the Economic and Social Committee.) There are only 17 commissioners, but the EC altogether employs over 14,000 people. Most are based in Brussels or Luxembourg, but the commission has representatives throughout the world.

The EC is essentially Europe's civil service. It comprises nearly two dozen Directorates General (DGs). Within each are several Directorates, most of which are further divided, one layer nesting inside another like a family of Russian dolls.

The really interesting bits are the various programmes which, in turn, support a host of individual projects, many of them concerned with developing information technology.

The whole structure is organic, with its own cycles and rhythms. One large cycle (or "framework") has just come to an end, and another is beginning. For education and training, this means that products, services and publications developed under the declining Third Framework are now coming to market, and that funding for many more new projects is now becoming available through the emerging Fourth Framework.

Hitherto, education has been the province of national governments, particularly at primary and secondary levels. The EC has largely concentrated on post-secondary education and training at large; as one of the 14,000 put it (off the record), "The last thing any member state wants is a bunch of bureaucrats going around saying how bad the education system is."

However, as Europe's civil service, the commission has been particularly active in facilitating the exchange of information (and students) between institutions across the Union. It is estimated that some 400,000 students have studied in institutions other than their own over the past 10 years through the agency of the EC.

Past projects include several experiments with distance learning and the exchange of information through electronic media, particularly through the DELTA and Telematics programmes described elsewhere in this Update. One intriguing prospect for future development brings these two strands together in what could amount to the virtual classroom, or institutions without buildings, one rich field for exploitation under the new Telematics Application Programme.

Hitherto, activity has tended to focus on the role of business and industry in education. COMETT (Community Programme for Education and Training for Technology) began in 1987, fostering co-operation between academic and commercial organisations, and supporting initiatives in distance learning. Over the past five years, COMETT funded some 30 projects for technological training. The focus on technology neatly accommodated the transition from education to training, and demonstrated the value of collaboration between the institutions which prepare young people for the workforce, and the organisations which may hire them subsequently.

Education and training are addressed, or at least involved, in many of the new programmes emerging within the Fourth Framework. Two of particular interest are Socrates and Leonardo, which address education and vocational training respectively (see opposite). There are many more, and one of the first challenges for an organisation in pursuit of funding is simply to find the right programme to approach.

There are real opportunities here for organisations of all kinds - large and small, in the public or private sectors, and this includes schools and colleges - to start projects which could produce information, products or services of interest and value to others. There is now considerable emphasis on the importance of developing real products for real people.

The EC's programmes specifically encourage collaboration across national, cultural and linguistic borders: projects are typically developed by consortia with members drawn from at least two (and usually three or more) member states of the Union.

The Commission even offers a sort of brokerage to introduce potential partners, although successful consortia seem more often to be built upon relationships with some longer history. Understanding all this is important, for competition is fierce, and it is essential to approach the right programme with the right proposal.

Of course, the EC itself offers a great deal of information and, in the UK, the Department of Trade and Industry in particular has people, publications and services dedicated to helping applicants through the hoops, and representing British interests individually and collectively (as do some local authorities, firms and educational institutions).

This is the new alchemy that turns proposals into funding, but only, as with all forms of conjuring, if the proper actions are performed in the prescribed order and if the magic words are used in the correct manner.

Inevitably, there is plenty to read even before getting started. There may be something indicative in the titles of two valuable handbooks for hopeful applicants: the DTI's very own Fast-TrackGuide to Successful Proposals (DTIPub3044k0594) and the Commission's own EC-Funded Research and Technological Development - an insight into the handling of project proposals; an introduction to contract negotiation (ISBN 92 826 7076 7).

The EC is stiff with acronyms because there are so many long titles in its repertoire. But a few are useful to know for people who want to make information technology proposals: RTD for Research, Technological development and Demonstration; ICT for Information and Communication Technologies; and SMEs for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises - these are the sort of organisations which the EC likes to support, and to be seen to support.

This is not a gravy train, but there can be rewards. There is no easy way up the learning curve, either, but the CORDIS (Community Research and Development Information Service) database (freephone 0800 899256), and the daily Official Journal (HMSO 0171-873 9090, and many reference libraries) are good places to start.

* Contact: Brian Jones, departmentof Trade and Industry,tel: 0171-215 1224Signe Hoffos is a co-editor of The Multimedia Year Book.

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