EUROPE: French are Erasmus mobility champions

The French are the new 'champions' of student mobility under the European Union's flagship Erasmus programme. More than 28,000 students left France with the scheme last year for higher education studies abroad - an increase of 9%. They dislodged the Germans who had formed the biggest Erasmus contingent since 2003-04.

Thanks to the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students over 180,000 European students study abroad each year in more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey. Croatia and Macedonia signed up at the end of 2009.

Since the programme was launched in 1987 over two million Erasmus students have spent periods studying in a country other than their own. The European Commission aims to pass the three million mark by 2012.

Erasmus students spend at least three months in the foreign institution, and the studies abroad are recognised by their home university and count towards their qualifications.

In 2007 Erasmus became part of the EU's Lifelong Learning programme and expanded to cover new areas including student placements in companies and university staff training.

Most recent figures from the European commission show that while students from countries with big populations - France, Germany and the UK - registered the greatest numbers studying abroad, those sending most Erasmus students as a share of the student population were Liechtenstein (6.43%), Austria (1.77%) and the Czech Republic (1.54%).

Most popular host countries were Spain, France, Germany and the UK.

Details about the mobility of French students participating in the scheme in 2008-09 were presented this month by Jean Bertsch, Director of Europe-Education-Formation France, the agency that manages the Erasmus programme in France.

Spain was the most popular destination with 22.4% of French students choosing to study there. Next were the UK with 18.7%, Germany 12.1%, and Sweden and Italy each with 6.7%.

Bertsch noted that new destinations attracting increasing numbers of French students were the Scandinavian countries, especially Norway, and central and eastern Europe. Since 2003 Lithuania had seen a rise of 316%, the Czech Republic 99% and Poland 70%.

Last year 23,560 of the 28,283 French Erasmus students spent one or two semesters at a foreign university, 4.5% more than in 2007-08. The remaining 4,723 took professional training in firms abroad - up by 40% over the previous year.

"Now mobility is regarded as a real advantage for entering the job market," said Bertsch. "It's confronting the world of work in a European country."

Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, said the student population concerned with Erasmus was in the process of diversification. Eligibility had widened to include students following shorter as well as long courses. Last year 12% of French students taking part in Erasmus studies abroad were enrolled in two-year vocational studies.

Bertsch said this indicated Erasmus was no longer just for some privileged students.

To encourage further student mobility Pécresse said she had asked Bertsch to devise a one-stop service for students bringing together information about all the mobility grants and financial aids available, to clarify the present maze of state, regional and chamber of commerce benefits on offer.