'Erasmus is the symbol of what Europe does best. A Europe of facts, of results.'
These are the laudatory terms in which José Manuel Barroso defined the European exchange program that will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2007. In 1987, only 3, 000 pioneers had tried the experience of studying abroad for one or two semesters. Nowadays, about 150 000 students per year choose to travel to a different university. This adds up to a total of one and a half million students who, in twenty years, will have travelled among European universities.
Educating Rita...and Hans...and Jacques
Halfway through the 80s, Europe was building itself through industry, business and free trade. But it found it was unable to bring citizens closer amidst stagnating feelings of European identity. How could this be promoted for the future of Europe, and also its present, who had always lived in the European Union? What better than educating the young.
It was the European students' forum (AEGEE), led by Franck Biancheri, 27 at the time, which was the first to put forward the concept of the project. The French President, François Mitterrand supported the idea. A few months later, the student exchange programme was born under the name of Erasmus.
For the past twenty years, France has been the country with the highest number of participants. A little more than 217, 000 of its students left home to go on Erasmus trips, followed closely by the Germans (216, 000) and the Spaniards (191, 000). The most popular destination remains Spain, host to an average of nearly 25, 000 Erasmus students every year.
The climate and the night life of the Iberian peninsula, made popular by the Cedric Klapisch film, l'Auberge Espagnole, are probably among the reasons causing such a general enthusiasm. The adventures of a group of foreign students living a different kind of dream in Barcelona even made the Erasmus trip a symbol of a carefree and cosmopolitan student life. Other countries have proven to be less popular destinations - notably the United Kingdom, the Netherlands or Ireland.
An unquestionable plus
In 2004, Erasmus became even more international when its little brother Erasmus Mundus was born. The principle: allowing very qualified European students to go to foreign countries, and let the same amount of foreigners come. A hundred European masters have already received the 'Erasmus Mundus' label. The ambition is to make the European Union a centre of studies recognized throughout the world for its excellence, in accordance with the Lisbon agenda that aims to make the EU 'the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy in the world by 2010.'
Another advantage is that Erasmus helped make the European career paths more homogenous, through the bachelors-masters-doctors degrees scheme and the ECTS European credits, recognised everywhere. In theory, there should be no more problems getting an administration to recognize the points one has obtained abroad. In a few years' time, 45 countries in the world will have adopted that system, making student exchanges easier.
Moerover, the experience gained by those who take part in that programme is considered to be an advantage for their professional careers. According to a European Union study, 60% of Erasmus students think that their trip was beneficial for their first job, thanks to the language skills they had acquired, as well as a certain open-mindedness. Certain universities, such as Paris's Sciences Po or engineering schools have made that stay abroad compulsory.
Now for some modesty
The albeit real success of the programme is relative. Only 1% of students get to leave on an Erasmus exchange, which remains a very low figure. In 2005-2006, 930 euros were spent on the programme, with a scholarship of 150 euros per month for each student. This amount has not risen since 1993, hence not taking into account the increase in the cost of living and housing.
Another low point is that the amoung ot money given to each student does not take into account the living standards of the country one is going to. And yet between Bucarest and Oslo, there is a striking difference. Jan Figel’, the European commissioner in charge of Education, stated last December that the 'Erasmus scholarships are too low to allow students from underprivileged backgrounds to take part in the programme.'
The European institutions have therefore decided to be ambitious, planning to encourage a million and a half students to leave between 2007 and 2012, which is as many as in the last twenty years. To this aim, they have planned to spend 3, 1 billion euros. However education remains far from being the European Union's priority. 40% of its resources - its biggest budget - are spent on agriculture and the famous CAP reform.