The European Commission announced on Tuesday that EUR66 million (US$90 million) will be allocated to extending the Erasmus Mundus higher education programme to support European Neighbourhood countries, in response to the Arab Spring.
The initiative is aimed at achieving better understanding and mutual enrichment between the European Union and neighbouring countries by creating possibilities for student and academic staff mobility - for example, the opportunity to study in universities in EU member states - and exchange of knowledge and skills.
The move is part of a new approach towards Europe's neighbours to the east and south, based on "on mutual accountability and a shared commitment to respecting universal values, international human rights standards, democracy and the rule of law", the commission said.
The Polish government, currently holding the EU presidency, has made expansion of Erasmus programmes to eastern and southern neighbours a priority.
Following a comprehensive review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), launched in 2010, the commission says a strengthened engagement in the area of education is a crucial element of the new approach towards the ENP countries. The funding will be spread over the next four years.
"In the context of the recent developments in the south, particular attention needs to be given to supporting actions in favour of young people in the southern ENP countries, who play an important role in the current democratisation process of the region," the commission said.
The commission argued that, as most European Neighbourhood Policy countries are in the process of working towards establishing fully-fledged market economies, higher education institutions are under strong pressure to provide the skills required by new economic conditions.
"Support for partner country institutions in their reform efforts and in establishing people-to-people cooperation, especially in the field of higher education, is therefore needed and can contribute to mutual understanding between people, countries and cultures in the EU's neighbouring countries," it added.
The Erasmus Mundus extension is one aspect of a four-part plan, outlined this week, to respond to the Arab Spring. The flagship initiative is the Support to Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth (SPRING) Programme, adopted on 27 September.
Through SPRING the commission will provide support for the Southern Neighbourhood countries for democratic transformation, institution building and economic growth in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is expected to improve human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic governance, freedom of association, expression and assembly and free press and media. Improvements in public administration, rule of law and the fight against corruption are also anticipated.
Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, said: "The European Union was the first to offer a serious response to the Arab Spring. This new set of decisions is the result of the new and ambitious European Neighbourhood Policy launched in May and it confirms that the EU has made it one of its main priorities to support 'deep' and sustainable democracy, but also economic recovery, in North Africa and the Middle East."
SPRING will provide EUR350 million of support in 2011 and 2012, using the 'more for more' principle. This means that the more a country progresses in its democratic reforms and institutional building, the more support it can expect. It is expected that initial support will go to Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.
Stefan Füle, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, said: "These decisions prove our strong commitment to our neighbouring partners. Through job creation, improved living conditions, university partnerships and promoting a stronger voice for civil society, this support demonstrates Europe's full engagement in ensuring the desired transition to democracy in the region."
Currently the Erasmus Mundus II (2009-13) programme - the EU's flagship higher education initiative - provides support to universities that wish to implement joint postgraduate degrees or set up partnerships between universities from Europe and targeted partner countries.
It also supports individual students, researchers and university staff who wish to spend a study or research or teaching period in the context of one of these joint programmes or cooperation partnerships. And it supports any organisation active in the field of higher education that wishes to develop projects aiming at improving the attractiveness, profile, visibility and image of European higher education worldwide.
Erasmus Mundus II (Action 2 Partnerships, Strand 1) seeks to extend the best practices of the internal Erasmus Programme to ENP regions, and to expand mobility opportunities to include all levels of higher education.
The programme supports the establishment of cooperation partnerships between European universities and those in neighbourhood countries.
Scholarships of various lengths can be awarded to interested students and the exchange programme is open to undergraduate, postgraduate, doctoral and post-doctoral students from partner countries, and will allow for student and teaching staff exchanges. Since 2007, more than 4,000 students from Neighbourhood countries and Russia have benefited from this exchange programme.
According to Cecile Hoareau, a researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, Erasmus is tipped to increase by 71% in the 2014-20 budget, making education the area with the highest budget increase, as University World News reported last weekend.
This budget would double the number of European young people, students and academics involved in mobility programmes from 400,000 to 700,000-800,000 each year.
Allan Päll, Chairperson of the European Students' Union, welcomed the EC's decision to support higher education and democratic development in the Arab region. He said: "Students and youth have led the Arab Spring, now it is crucial to sustain their hope."
But he feared that Erasmus Mundus would be too "elite driven" and too focused on the "attractiveness of Europe", which could contribute to brain drain. He said: "The emphasis is more about trying to attract students from the south to study in Europe rather than being based on reciprocity as is the case with the regular Erasmus scheme in which students are involved in international exchanges for part of their course."
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