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EUROPE
Using lessons from Erasmus Mundus to improve Erasmus+ joint degrees
A recent synthesis report by seven independent experts presented the main results achieved through the first generation of 57 Erasmus Mundus joint masters programmes. Its recommendations are particularly timely since joint masters degrees will continue to be financed under Europe’s new Erasmus+ programme that started in January 2014.

The analysis shows that this type of international collaborative programme development brings important gains in internationalisation and quality, but that a number of areas still require improvement.

The positives

One of the most positively evaluated aspects is the great attention that has been paid to the selection of excellent students through large worldwide promotion activities.

The most successful joint programmes were those that collaborated closely at all developmental levels: in programme design, in the academic provision and in the training and mobility tracks.

This joint approach worked best if collaboration was further extended to include employers too. It offered a high level of harmonisation in performance evaluation and joint supervision of students.

Another positive development is the growing involvement of non-European Union universities in Erasmus Mundus consortia and the possibility to involve visiting scholars and professionals from outside Europe.

Graduate impact surveys have been carried out annually by the Erasmus Mundus alumni association since 2007. They show relatively low unemployment rates among Erasmus Mundus graduates and swift employment after graduation.

Only 18% of now employed Erasmus Mundus graduates stayed unemployed for more than six months after graduation. On average, it took graduates who now have permanent posts less than four months to find a job.

Erasmus Mundus graduates tend to work for international companies and organisations and the involvement of potential employers and guidance offered to students already during their professional internship or fieldwork research enhance employability prospects.

The weaknesses

Weaknesses were also identified by the experts who contributed to the report.

They pointed to the need to develop more ambitious internship schemes or broader programmes through which additional competences and soft skills can be developed.

These should be tailored to the needs of students and may include, for example, entrepreneurship, communication, publishing skills etc. Students reported that they could use additional training in areas such as negotiation and leadership skills.

More efforts would also be required to build common e-learning platforms to ensure regular contact between international students and universities, to facilitate their mobility track, and to develop more collaborative working patterns between university staff, students and employers.

One area that will receive special attention in Erasmus+ is the long-term financial sustainability of joint degrees. Too often, these rely on continued EU funding to operate. Generally, not enough has been done to achieve sustainability after EU support ended.

Finally, Erasmus Mundus consortia are advised to more systematically implement tracer studies for tracking and measuring the employment status of their graduates.

Why Erasmus Mundus?

This was a review of the first joint programmes created under Erasmus Mundus and some of the criticism has already been successfully addressed by the second generation of Erasmus Mundus joint programmes between 2009 and 2013.

This applies in particular to the development of placements and internships, the more systematic involvement of employers, and the creation of closer links with the alumni networks.

The annual Erasmus Mundus graduate impact surveys reach conclusions that are quite similar to the current study.

Students choose Erasmus Mundus first of all to improve their knowledge and skills, particularly in highly specialised fields. They are interested in developing their intercultural competences in good part for the effect they expect this to have on their career prospects.

The award of a joint degree also plays a role in their decision. Most students rate mobility highly. They see it as a way to become acquainted with various cultural environments. Surprisingly, language competences are regarded as being the least developed during the study period.

Students also indicate that the broadened mind-set required for a joint international programme is helpful for learning to think outside the box.

They perceive Europe as an attractive destination for study and work, although many non-EU students find it difficult to obtain a work permit in Europe after having completed their studies. They find the European job market highly competitive.

The most challenging issues, however, are of an administrative nature, with cumbersome and restrictive visa procedures standing out.

The low visibility of Erasmus Mundus degrees among employers, in particular outside Europe, is another urgent issue to address.

Finally, students and graduates ask for a more thorough application of quality assurance measures to safeguard the high quality of all courses that make up Erasmus Mundus joint programmes.

They report notable differences between these, referring to diverging grading systems, difficulties to obtain double degrees due to bureaucratic or financial issues and variations in the quality of teaching and teaching approaches.

Erasmus Mundus has successfully promoted the recognition of joint degrees in laws across Europe and beyond. Yet, some students still find it difficult to have their diplomas recognised back home.

But they also say that even if the degrees are not recognised by national authorities, employers value the competences gained during the studies, which is what matters in the end.

Erasmus+

All of these challenges will be taken up by Erasmus+ after it incorporates Erasmus Mundus and other international academic cooperation programmes this month.

To ensure that the selected joint masters programmes remain of high quality and to develop a strategy for their long-term sustainability, the funding system of joint degrees will be reviewed.

Instead of receiving funding for five successive intakes (as was the case under Erasmus Mundus), selected university consortia will receive funding for an initial three intakes and will then be invited to undergo a thorough quality review. If they pass this review, they can receive additional support in the form of co-funding for up to three years to ensure future sustainability and quality assurance.

The first Erasmus+ call for projects that also covered joint masters degrees was launched in December 2013, with a deadline of 27 March 2014. Students from any country of the world are also encouraged to apply for a scholarship to enrol in one of the current 138 Erasmus Mundus masters programmes or one of the 42 joint doctorates.

* Claire Morel is deputy head of the unit International Cooperation and Programmes at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture.

About Erasmus Mundus and European joint degrees:

With the launch of the Erasmus Mundus programme in 2004, the European Commission pursued a double objective: to support the adoption of the bachelor, masters and doctoral cycles across Europe and to increase the attractiveness of European universities for students from outside the EU. It would allow them to compete more effectively with other regions of the world and help them to attract the best students worldwide.

Between 2004 and 2013, Erasmus Mundus offered more than 16,000 scholarships to students for the 222 joint postgraduate programmes that have been established since its start. These joint study programmes are delivered by consortia of European and often non-European universities.

They include mandatory mobility, with students studying in two or more European countries. They can lead to joint, double or multiple degrees. The high level of integration, or ‘jointness’, of all components and their excellence are the essential characteristics of an Erasmus Mundus programme.
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