Student mobility threatened by cash crisis

The European Union’s (EU) Erasmus student exchange programme has run into a major budget shortfall and may not be able to fund students studying abroad from next January. “There’s a problem here and certainly something has to be done,” said Dennis Abbott, the European Commission’s education spokesperson.

“It’s not a problem in the short term because the commission has already transferred about 70% of the funding for Erasmus for the academic year 2012-13 to the national agencies who distribute the funds.

“Also, in most cases students receive the bulk of their Erasmus funding up front, with many receiving 80% of their grants in advance,” Abbott told University World News.

However this would not last beyond the start of the second 2012-13 semester next January and “we need agreement rapidly for the future”, he said.

European government leaders, including David Cameron in the UK, French President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, had all insisted that the EU had to invest more in education and research “and they’ve got to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

Abbott’s comments followed a warning from the French head of the European parliament’s budget committee, Alain Lamassoure, about the EU financing shortfall, which he blamed on austerity-minded EU governments.

“The European social fund is bankrupt and can't refund member states. Next week it will be Erasmus, the student programme; at the end of the month, the Research and Innovation Fund,” he said at a Brussels press conference.

The commission said on Wednesday that it would present an emergency budget “to ensure that the Erasmus student programme and the European Social Fund can continue to meet payments for grants”. However, any such budget would still need the approval of member governments and the European parliament.

The Erasmus scheme, which funds university student exchanges, has been used by more than 2.2 million students since it was launched in 1987 and manages an annual budget of €450 million (US$582 million).

Unfortunately, most of the 27 EU member governments have to deal with difficult economic conditions at home, with many of them in recession, and there is little support for higher spending by Brussels.

Seven countries – Austria, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden – have refused to agree to commission proposals to increase expenditure in the 2013 budget by 6.8%, or €9 billion, to €138 billion (US$11.7 billion to US$179 billion), while Finland, France and Germany have called for a €5 billion cut in spending next year.

European students called on the commission to solve the budget problems “by using money from under-spent EU funds”.

Karina Ufert, chair of the European Students’ Union, said there was a need for a long-term solution to protect funding for Erasmus students. She called on EU members to recognise the importance of European student mobility programmes when deciding on the next multi-annual financial framework, for 2014-20.

In order to secure funding for the EU funds, including the Erasmus scheme, the council of government ministers and the European parliament needed to make amendments to the budget, but this had not happened yet “threatening future Erasmus grants”, she said.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Wednesday that “in the context of crisis and mass unemployment, education and training throughout life are the safest investment in the future”.

In a staunch defence of Erasmus and investment in education, he told the Assemblée Nationale that “France wants to offer all Europeans, whatever their skill level, the opportunity to train in another EU country.

“Today, Europe spends only 1% of its budget on education and training. My government will require a significant increase in this share. Thus the Erasmus programme should be powerfully increased and benefit a larger number of students, particularly those from low-income families.”