"The Erasmus programme will run out of funds from next week," announced the French MEP Alain Lamassoure, the chair of the committee on budgets of the European Parliament, on 2 October. The news arrives just as the celebration of the European exchange programme's 25th birthday marks a milestone in its history. "The European social fund has run up debts to the tune of 10 billion euros. From the beginning of October we will be unable to meet repayments for certain projects. Next week is Erasmus' turn, and from the end of the month funding also runs out for the programme for research and innovation."
Party's over - time to settle up
The news comes as a blow to those who are preparing to take part in the Erasmus student exchange programme in the next few months, perhaps following in the steps of older siblings. The mud-slinging between the European institutions and national governments, whose behaviour is verging on the "absurd" according to Lamassoure, will comfort no-one. They must wait until 23 October, when the European budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski will present a corrective proposal for the 2013 budget. The axe also hangs over the new 'Erasmus for all' programme, due to be launched in 2014. The number of candidates increased from 3, 244 in the academic year 1987-1988 to 231, 408 in 2010-2011 (figures are from the DG and EAC). Whilst these are impressive figures, they may be the last of their kind to be published.
"I've always joked about Erasmus when interviewing candidates who mention the programme on their CV," says Leonarda Vanicelli, the director of human resources at Doxee communications agency in Modena, Italy. "The ones who get through are those who can tell me how much they learnt, and about how they turned the experience into a success." At Erasmus' darkest hour, we ask HR managers and students for their opinion. There is no arguing with the numbers: 2011 saw an 8.9% increase in the number of students leaving home for Europe. But what practical use does the programme have? Is it in training for the Euro-generation?
Erasmus for careers
According to the dominant policy in Europe at the moment, what counts is cash. Until funding becomes clear financial gain in the pockets of young people, instead of taking national budgets further into the red, it will be only too easy to make cuts. "The previous generation of entrepreneurs and HR managers thought that erasmus was just about the parties. The next generation (like my boss, who is 43), knows that fun and training can go together, and understands that what has been learnt should be duly highlighted on CVs." The recommendation has already been taken on board by many students, who have not, however, necessarily found anyone who will take them into consideration.
"Erasmus is still a highly beneficial experience, but it depends on how it is approached," says Enric-Sol Brinesi Gomez, a 26-year-old Spaniard who is on his way to the Philippines following a year abroad in Paris as well as time spent studying in Brazil and the US. Since completing his studies, Enric has only had interviews with multinational companies outside Europe. "The companies of today value experience from outside the EU more," he comments, shortly before taking a flight to Manila, where he will start a new job. Chiara Tampieri, a 25-year-old Italian, also completed her erasmus studies in Paris, and is currently looking for a job. "I did work experience in a museum near Nice just before I graduated," she says. "Do you really want to know? No-one has ever asked me about Erasmus. When they saw that I could speak French and had relevant studies, that was enough."
Look before you leap
Jarlath Dillon, director of international business at the Paris-based IGS group, is convinced that Erasmus is a real financial, physical and mental undertaking. "The only way to properly benefit is to think about what you want to achieve before you go." IGS, one of the leading HR management schools in France, gives its students a questionnaire before they leave. "47% of our students want to go to anglophone countries, but I would tell them to be different, go elsewhere, and when you're looking for work you'll stand out, as long as you can explain your reasons. For example, explain that you went to Poland because you were interested in a certain business model, or because you had a cultural project that you wanted to develop further."
According to a 2009 Heublein survey, 85% of German students still think that erasmus improves their prospects in the job market. The 2006 Valera project by Bracht e al. demonstrated that one in two students and one in three employers still think that erasmus is an important factor during recruitment. The salvation of Erasmus is still about offsetting the cost of the basic per capita study bursary (250 euros on average) against the leap into the unknown taken by the few selected. Erasmus can be described in economic terms as an investment for life. If its impact on work prospects cannot be precisely quantified, in a time of collective belt-tightening we may lose the fight against those who would cut the last grants.