Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, European Commission
It has been some 25 years since the introduction of the hugely successful Erasmus exchange programme, which provides grants for students to go abroad for studies or job placements. Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou highlights the benefits that academic mobility has brought to millions of Europeans over the years, and how Erasmus has opened up to become a truly international enterprise
IT WAS 1987 when the first group of Erasmus students packed their bags and set off for an adventure none of them would forget. Few could have imagined that, in a matter of years, Erasmus would become the world’s best-known academic exchange scheme. The 3,000+ students who took part in the first exchange could choose from 10 destination countries for their studies. Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and 33 countries are now in the scheme – the EU-27, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey – and nearly 300,000 young Europeans have received Erasmus grants. In the 2010-11 academic year alone, the programme funded more than 230,000 students, the highest figure so far.
Erasmus was launched at a time when Europe was still a divided continent. The scheme became a flagship for education across borders, for changing lives and opening minds. As Umberto Eco, the Italian writer, recently remarked, the Erasmus programme has contributed to creating a truly ‘European generation’.
A lot has changed in the past 25 years, both for Europe and Erasmus. The programme has evolved with the times; today, it is a cornerstone in the EU’s efforts to reduce youth unemployment. The programme was expanded in 2007 to allow students to apply for Erasmus grants for job placements abroad, in addition to the traditional study option. While the latter remains the most popular choice – around 190,000 studied abroad in the 2010-11 academic year – more than 40,000 received on-the-job experience in companies, while at the same time strengthening links between business and academia. It is widely recognised that an Erasmus exchange can help young people gain vital skills, such as languages, adaptability, inter-cultural awareness and leadership. These skills are invaluable on the increasingly competitive job market.
STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
Erasmus is not just for students – grants are also available for teachers and other academic staff. In 2010-11, 43,000 teachers and staff took part in an Erasmus exchange, with more than 4,000 higher education institutions involved in the programme. Each has signed up to the Erasmus University Charter, which aims to ensure the quality of student and staff mobility. Through funding for transnational projects and networks, the Erasmus programme enables higher education institutions to work together and improve their teaching, recognition systems, student support services, cooperation with business and institutional management.
This means that it not only brings benefits to individual students or staff, but is also a catalyst for improving the quality of higher education in general. For example, Erasmus has triggered important reforms through the Bologna Process, including EU-wide recognition of study periods abroad through the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), which started as an Erasmus-funded pilot project, and measures to improve quality assurance. The Erasmus scheme has also encouraged the European academic community to modernise and to address issues such as the compatibility of curricula. These reforms contribute to the internationalisation of European higher education.
In 2004, the success of Erasmus prompted the introduction of a worldwide version of the programme, Erasmus Mundus, which has boosted academic cooperation between Europe and the rest of the world. The programme is open to students of all nationalities and is aimed at joint Master’s degree courses which must involve at least two higher education institutions. Since 2009, universities from outside Europe have been able to participate as full partners in these Erasmus Mundus joint courses. Beyond Europe, Erasmus has inspired similar exchange schemes, notably the Nyerere Programme between African, Caribbean and Pacific universities and the Campus Asia initiative between universities in China, Japan and South Korea.
NO SIGNS OF AGEING
The next chapter in the Erasmus story is currently in the making. The 25th anniversary comes at a time when the European Commission is preparing to launch ‘Erasmus for All’, a new programme for education, training, youth and sport. This builds on the enormous contribution that Erasmus has made to European higher education and the enduring power of the Erasmus brand name.
Erasmus for All will run from 2014-20; bringing all existing EU programmes in these four sectors under one roof. The Commission has proposed a significant budget increase which will enable it to increase the number of individuals receiving grants to study, teach, train or volunteer abroad from 2.5 million in the current budget period (2007-13) to nearly 5 million in the following seven years.
Two-thirds of the budget will be earmarked for grants to enhance knowledge and skills. The programme will be opened up to non-EU countries, allowing higher education students and staff to receive grants to go to a non-EU country, as well as non-EU students and staff to come to study, train or teach in the EU.
As a further boost to student mobility, the Commission has also proposed to create an EU loan guarantee fund within Erasmus for All. This is aimed at students who plan to undertake a full Master’s degree course in another European country and for whom it is often difficult to obtain commercial loans at reasonable rates. By sharing the risk of possible defaults with lenders, the scheme aims to generate loans for some 330,000 students between 2014 and 2020, dramatically expanding the number of mobile students in Europe. This would help the EU meet its target of doubling overall student mobility to at least 20 per cent by the end of the decade.
The Commission’s proposal is currently being discussed and negotiated by the European Member States and the European Parliament.