DENMARK: Erasmus Mundus on a collision course?

In its proposals for the next phase of Erasmus Mundus, the European Commission is moving towards higher student contributions for enrolment in the EU joint programmes scheme. The proposals have met opposition from countries such as Denmark, where tuition is paid through taxation. The issue will come up for debate in the European Parliament this month and an amendment has already been mooted.

Public universities in countries that traditionally do not charge for tuition are not unwilling to follow the commission's recommendations because of the considerable additional expenses they cannot recover through their traditional financing agreements with their governments.

In Denmark, however, they face strong opposition from politicians, students and the media who all cry foul, each for their own reason. Politicians want to defend the Danish right to stand by its traditions, students want to pay as little as possible and most of the media just smell a good fight.

Erasmus Mundus is the EU support programme through which European university networks offer joint and double degree programmes. An Erasmus Mundus programme must have participating universities from at least three countries.

The programme's small print specifies that all students in each programme should be treated as equals, receiving the same degrees and facing the same entry requirements, including tuition fees. It is the latter requirement that has stirred emotions in Denmark which is one of the countries where free education is a holy institution, paid for through national taxes.

In late autumn 2007, the Danish media caught wind of the fact that Danish students had been charged up to 50,000 Danish kroner (about EUR6500, or US$10,000) for participation in Erasmus Mundus networks. The message was copied, blown up and no details were provided about how many students were involved or who had taken money for what.

In fact, Danish politicians and the media turned the case into a political issue whose sole aim at that point seemed to be to strike out at Science Minister Helge Sander. Even most of the broadsheet newspapers copied each other's accusations. None bothered to take a close look at the publicly accessible Erasmus Mundus regulations.

The great absentee from the public debate that ensued was the semi-governmental organisation mandated to manage and inform about the European education programmes. The universities, however, weren't very forthcoming either, claiming the money charged represented an administrative fee to cover the extra expenses of running an international degree programme.

The situation was not made any more transparent by the fact that different universities have used different models for their participation in Erasmus Mundus. While some have accepted student fees and government funds for the same students, and therefore technically have broken the law, others have taken fees but not claimed government support.

Adding insult to injury, it turned out that under current Danish legislation not only had Danish students been paid back their tuition fees but also foreign students who had paid for studying at a Danish university as part of their Erasmus Mundus programme.

"It became a political case where the aim was more to hit the Minister than to solve the problem," said Dr Jens Oddershede, president of Universities Denmark, the former Danish Rectors' Conference.

Rather than becoming a political debate, the issue should have focused on whether the universities had broken the national laws and why. The underlying conflict between public funding and tuition fees in a Europe with fading borders but very different systems of education financing is a massive hurdle - some even think insurmountable - on the road towards a true European higher education area.

"For us there were three issues," said Oddershede. "Who was going to pay back the funds? If the universities acted with the knowledge of the responsible authorities, could they be asked to pay back the money or should the ministry reach into its pockets? And secondly, what were we supposed to do this year when the new programme should be designed? Finally, how do we solve this issue for good?

"In the current situation we simply cannot participate in the next phase of the Erasmus Mundus programme unless the situation is resolved."

The core of the problem is that Erasmus Mundus requires equal treatment of all students. So a consortium with a UK university, a Danish university and a Swedish university would charge all students a (presumably pro-rata) UK tuition fee but not a Danish or Swedish fee.

That turns Erasmus Mundus into a loss-maker for universities in countries that do not allow university students to be charged tuition fees because the administrative costs of participation in international joint degrees are considerable.

Administration, student guidance, language training, not to mention the joint development of course materials, all weigh heavily on institutional budgets. Universities as well as student groups in Denmark quite rightly question the justification of taking this extra expenditure from the budgets of regular, national degree programmes.

The case calls for either landslide changes to legislation or for creative solutions. The latter have now been proposed by Universities Denmark. In a recent press release, the rectors called for a change of status of Erasmus Mundus programmes with Danish involvement into 'international programmes' for which tuition fees could be charged.

"It would be so annoying if we had to give up our participation in the programme just because the Erasmus Mundus rules collide with the principle of free tuition in this country," Oddershede said. "We have to solve this problem and we have to do it very soon. And we think it can be done with only small adjustments of the current, very tight rules.

"In brief, we now ask that Danish universities be allowed to offer Erasmus Mundus studies as international degrees. Danish students enrolling in these programmes can then receive a grant for 'studying abroad' which would cover their tuition fees. This would also eliminate the problem of us having to pay back fees to foreign students because there is no European rule which says that national grants must be available to all EU citizens."