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Erasmus is key to Europe’s future – Don’t diminish it

The economic situation in Europe has hit young people very hard. A good education that prepares them for a world that is increasingly fast-moving, mobile, interdependent and multicultural is fundamental to ensuring they do not become a 'lost generation'.

Over the past 25 years, the European Union's (EU) Erasmus programme has allowed nearly three million young Europeans to study abroad. More recently, Erasmus has also supported job placements in companies abroad.

A whole generation has learned what it means to live and work alongside people from another culture, and to develop the skills and versatility that are vital for the modern labour market. It is a generation that has gone on to find some of the best jobs.

There is, however, concern that the current and future budgets for Erasmus, to be agreed in the coming weeks, may not be sufficient to live up to pledges to open up Erasmus to millions more young Europeans from 2014 through the Erasmus for All programme, at a cost of less than 2% of the total EU budget.

In my experience teaching in Copenhagen, Erasmus is important in terms of providing possibilities to my students to travel around Europe, and it is beneficial for the teaching environment in Copenhagen to have students from other European countries spend some time with us.

The scheme is a crucial way of making students feel exchanges are a viable option. It is about encouraging students and making them believe, for instance, that it might be possible to go to Vienna to study next semester. That is extremely important in my specialism, the visual arts. It is absolutely critical that students are exposed to other cultures and ways of making art.

Many Erasmus benefits

I have seen the benefits of Erasmus both for my own students and those who come to study in Copenhagen. My students return with a greater maturity. They have a clearer sense of what their own institution has to offer.

That makes for a more mature relationship with their institution and a clearer idea of what opportunities are available to them and what they can expect. They are also much more pragmatic and recognise better the limits of what their institution can offer.

The students who come to Copenhagen on Erasmus exchanges are really enthusiastic and clearly enjoy and get a lot out of the experience. They tend to jump on our specialised facilities, which they might not have access to at their institution.

Although students in general are more travelled than they used to be, that is not an argument against Erasmus because what we see is that Erasmus helps them to mature as students – and studying at an institution in a different country is a completely different proposition to just travelling abroad.

You may be able to read a novel in Budapest and it might be the same experience as reading it in Reykjavík, but you cannot see an exhibition in Reykjavík when you are in Budapest.

That direct encounter with artworks and different practices around the production of artworks is central. It cannot be approximated virtually or in another format. Proximity generates belief, and experiencing different artistic practices is really important. If you only encounter these on the internet or in books it does not have the same impact.

I was an undergraduate in Ireland and a graduate student in the US. The experience of being in New York and being in close proximity to its galleries and museums was enriching. There is no substitute for that.

Technology such as Skype, together with the economic challenges we are facing, may make it seem an attractive option to substitute the lived experience that Erasmus makes possible with cheaper alternatives, but unfortunately it is not the same thing at all.

Erasmus’ role in encouraging undergraduate students to go on to consider graduate and postgraduate studies in another European country is also important. Students who have been involved in Erasmus are much more likely to consider graduate work in another part of Europe and that type of movement around Europe is beneficial to students and universities alike. Erasmus sows that seed in people's minds.

Promoting a European identity

And then there is Erasmus' role in promoting a European identity. The fact that Europe is going through difficult times at the moment is all the more of an argument for investing in Erasmus and makes it all the more important for students to travel across Europe and cultivate a sense of Europe as a unified project.

The idea of Europe as an entity that we can all identify with is only cultivated through schemes like Erasmus.

Moreover, my experience in northern Europe is that there are some fantastic educational resources that are sometimes undersubscribed. That's not to criticise the universities in northern Europe, but it seems to me that greater traffic of students from other countries could ensure better use of university resources on a pan-European level.

And a pan-European outlook is what Brussels is about. It seems insane therefore to diminish it.

* Gerard Byrne is a leading visual artist and professor of art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and is one of a number of signatories to an open letter sent to the European Union's heads of state and governments on the future of the Erasmus programme. Signatories include film-maker Pedro Almodovar, Professor Christopher Pissarides, 2010 Nobel laureate in economics and professor at the LSE, and Dr Claire Belcher, winner of the 2012 Marie Curie prize.
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