The European Council of Optometry and Optics (ECOO) decided last month to award the contract to manage the future European Diploma of Optometry to ZVA, the strong and efficient German opticians' federation, which had made the cheapest of 5-6 different national offers. The ZVA had previously agreed to lend £20,000 (e33,000-$28,000) to help fund the management of the program after the UK College of Optometrists, which has managed so far the development phase of the European diploma, said it could no longer advance its own funds.

The ZVA's loan was refunded through the last tranche of a subsidy granted by the European Commission for the European diploma from its own Leonardo Fund for education, which covered about one-third of the total budget of about £400,000 (e700,000-$600,000). National associations and all the major lens suppliers ? Essilor, Rodenstock, Hoya and Zeiss ? have participated in the funding, but Dr. Thomas Nosch, president of the ZVA, wants to prove that the examination procedure proposed for the European diploma is really valid, fair and useful before asking the industry and the European Commission for additional grants. Until then, the management of the diploma will be funded mainly through the student candidates' application fees.

The proposed diploma is basically designed to ensure that optometrists who have been trained in one country can practice legally and efficiently in another one ? a requirement that may become increasingly useful with the present expansion of several optical chains across national borders. The project may also help some national institutions to develop higher educational standards, making it easier for them to follow existing European Union directives on the free movement of labor, which still require aptitude tests before the foreign optometrist is licensed to practice in the host country.

The ZVA has been lately one of the most active participants in ECOO, a 15-year-old transnational organization which now has 25 member countries all over Western and Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland joined recently. Bobby Schwenson of Finland, who was recently elected as president of the council, has started making contact with Russia as a potential new member.

It has taken ECOO about 11 years to develop the European diploma under the management of Ian Hunter, the council's dynamic 55-year-old secretary general, who will stand down from the post at the end of July after 16 years of voluntary service. He will be replaced by Richard Carswell, Hunter's deputy at the head of the British Association of Optometrists (AOP), who worked in the Secretariat of the European Commission in the ?70s.

The initial development phase of the project was finalized a few months ago, but there is still more work to do. With the help of national institutions in its member countries, ECOO has put together a syllabus, and began to test it out in 3 languages on 75 students and young optometrists through a series of examinations in Cologne, Paris and London that ended in April of 2000. The first results have been very promising. New full-fledged examinations based on a new syllabus should follow soon.

Members of the European council have been trying to persuade national education institutes to adopt the basic tenets of the new European syllabus by working together on a new ?competency framework? for national qualification criteria, or in other words a measurable common set of minimum skills and abilities. According to Hunter, it may take between 5 and 10 more years to complete the process.

Meanwhile, the council is discussing important cross-border issues such as the new European Commission proposal on compulsory sight tests for older drivers and regulations on the sale of contact lenses over the internet. Some members of ECOO are also advocating the establishment of a European center for visual sciences to help train the teachers, but this is now regarded as a project for the more distant future.