The European Union’s showpiece Erasmus+ mobility and cooperation programme should be simplified and its “cumbersome” processes streamlined, according to a survey by the European University Association, or EUA.
Members complained that funding did not cover the full costs, especially for exchanges and cooperation with countries outside of the EU.
More than 200 higher education institutions belonging to the EUA responded to the survey – with 65% saying the administrative burden has increased, particularly for student mobility, since Erasmus+ took over a multitude of EU programmes for education, training, youth and sport in 2014.
Coming in for particular criticism was the new Mobility Tool, an online aid to managing Erasmus+ activities, which one-third of higher education institutions found “useless in its present form”.
The findings were outlined in a report, EUA Member Consultation: A contribution to the Erasmus+ mid-term review, produced by Michael Gaebel, director of the EUA’s Higher Education Policy Unit, and Henriette Stoeber, EUA policy and project officer, ahead of a major public consultation by the European Commission, earmarked for March-April 2017.
This will help the European Commission assess the effectiveness and relevance of the Erasmus+ 2014-20 programme and any successor programme.
Thirty years of Erasmus
The Commission’s mid-term review coincides with the 30th anniversary of the founding of the original Erasmus programme (European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), which was launched on 17 June 1987.
Then just 11 countries – Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom – took part in the Erasmus exchanges, with 3,244 students travelling abroad to study in 1987-88.
Today a total of 33 countries are involved in the full programme – all 28 EU member states and the non-EU countries, the Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Turkey. Other countries, mainly in Eastern Europe and North Africa – to which the scheme was extended in the wake of the Arab Spring – also participate in parts of the programme.
Best known for facilitating student and staff study and work opportunities abroad, 2002 saw the celebration of the one millionth Erasmus student, with the two millionth reached in 2009 and three millionth in 2012-13.
The European Commission says that over the past 30 years the programme has given five million people a chance to study, train or volunteer abroad and, as University World News reported, a record number of 650,000 individual mobility grants were made for people to study, train, work or volunteer abroad in 2014, the first year of Erasmus+.
EUA member universities said they appreciated the concept of a streamlined structure to replace the predecessor programmes and welcomed increased opportunities for collaboration with non-university and international partners, but most institutions said there had been “no real simplification and flexibility has not improved”.
Erasmus+ was launched with a budget of €14.7 billion (US$15.4 billion) for the seven years to 2020 and has integrated seven previous EU programmes in education, training, youth and sport. It has also added a new international dimension to encourage strategic links with universities and training providers outside Europe.
In its evaluation roadmap, the European Commission says the mid-term evaluation of Erasmus+ will look at the programme’s effectiveness and efficiency, including simplification, relevance, coherence and added value, with the review scheduled to deliver its conclusions in December 2017.
An spokesperson from the European Commission told University World News they had noted the EUA survey and will consider the findings “at the time of the open public consultation in March-April 2017” together with all other views collected.
“Meanwhile, and distinct from the mid-term evaluation, the Commission recalls that improvements have been continuously made over the past two years in order to adjust the programme to new priorities, to further simplify its management and improve the IT tools,” said the spokesperson.
The European Commission’s roadmap says the review results will be used to feed into the impact assessment for a possible successor programme and to improve implementation of Erasmus+ up to the end of the current programme in 2020.
The EUA’s Michael Gaebel told University World News: “We received more than 200 responses from higher education institutions from 36 countries and will now use our survey findings in talks with the 33 national rectors’ conferences belonging to EUA and make concrete recommendations for what we would like the Commission to do with Erasmus+ in the future!
“The report we have produced so far shows the problems, but does not necessarily give the solutions.”
Gaebel said EUA institutional members appreciated the thinking behind the new streamlined Erasmus+ structure but European universities felt there had been no real simplification, that flexibility has not improved and that administrative burdens have increased.
“Respondents to our survey also had issues with management support and tools with many saying they struggled with cumbersome processes and complicated and patchworked instructions,” Gaebel told University World News.
Co-author of the EUA survey report, Henriette Stoeber said: “A lot of administrative burden is due to Erasmus+ still being relatively new and because it is an umbrella programme bringing together many aspects that were previously separate.
“It tried to formulate similar rules across different actions and introduced a range of different forms and guidelines, but these were rolled out patchwork-like and with a lot of time pressure.
“But they did this with simplification in mind. The Commission wanted to simplify management on the ground and make it easier, but it hasn’t really worked out that way so far,” she told University World News.
And while applauding moves towards online-based, rather than paper-based administration, EUA members said different online tools and processes were not always compatible. A third of universities said the new Mobility Tool was “useless in its present form”.
More funds needed for cooperation
Gaebel added that EUA members surveyed said funding was insufficient, particularly for cooperation programmes and international exchanges with countries outside Europe.
“Latin America is of strategic importance to us, with its high proportion of Spanish and Portuguese speakers who are not fluent in English, and it makes sense to expand collaboration, not just for higher education but to support social and economic development. But the money allocated for exchanges falls well below actual demand,” said Gaebel.
He also highlighted a serious lack of funding for other strategic elements of Erasmus+, with “very low success rates” for bids putting off universities from engaging with programmes such as ‘Knowledge Alliances’ between higher education and business and industry. “In its first year, 2014, the success rate was only 4% and that was terrible and we got a very clear response from our members, with 60% saying it was not worth applying for Knowledge Alliance projects.”
Gaebel told University World News that proposals for such alliances were very demanding and projects required a consortium and could take weeks, if not months, of staff time at the four, five or more institutions involved.
Ease the processes
“This is not just about more money. We want the process to be eased and made less demanding.
“Streamlining procedures would save time and money for our institutions and for EACEA – the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency – which is in charge of managing all the Erasmus+ programmes for the European Commission, and for the national agencies managing the programmes in each country, such as DAAD in Germany and the British Council in the UK.”
One idea put forward by EUA members is for the European Commission and EACEA to organise focus groups with university staff working on Erasmus+, or even send some of their staff to universities for ‘job-shadowing’ in international offices, so they can better understand the day-to-day challenges of Erasmus+ administration.
EUA members also want better compatibility with a large number of commonly used IT database systems and the creation of a single web-based system to include all steps of Erasmus+ administration and management – from application to the reporting stages, including grant management and the exchange of documents.
EU mobility grants at record high, but impact varies
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