Academic cooperation needed to confront Europe’s crisis

There can be little doubt that the European Union (EU) is in the deepest crisis since its inception, a crisis it may not survive in its current form and composition.

The French writer Ernest Renan once famously said that a nation rests on a daily plebiscite. In many parts of Europe that plebiscite now seems to go against rather than in favour of the union.

According to a recent poll by the Pew organisation in eight member states, only 45% of respondents held favourable attitudes towards the EU, as opposed to 60% in 2012. Only in three of the eight countries (Poland, Germany and Italy) did a majority still back the EU.

In most countries support has gone down dramatically since 2007: from 80% to 46% in Spain, and from 62% to 41% in France. Even Italians, traditionally among the most enthusiastic supporters of the European cause, are down from 78% to 58%.

Obviously, the EU and national governments have failed to convince a majority of Europeans that we can overcome this crisis together at an acceptable price. The discussion on issues that concern us all is being led by member states, rather than across Europe about alternative political projects and socioeconomic interests.

And an entire generation of students, graduates and academics who have travelled across Europe seem to be sitting, quite literally, on fences.

Over the past 25 years, nearly three million students under the Erasmus programme alone have studied in another European country. A quarter of a million faculty members have done teaching assignments.

One would have expected that these people, or at least some of them, would speak up for Europe to oppose nationalist discourse and use the networks they have created with Europe’s help to passionately discuss how the crisis can best be overcome.
Instead we hear next to nothing.


That need not be so. Research indicates that Erasmus participants are generally more strongly attached to the union than non-mobile students. In a poll conducted in 2011, 73% of former Erasmus participants, as opposed to 57% of non-mobile students, held a favourable opinion of the EU.

Some 46% of Erasmus students identified themselves as ‘European’ at least as much as being German, Italian, French etc, while only 35% of non-mobile students and just 15% of the general public did so.

Current and former Erasmus students or, for that matter, DAAD – German Academic Exchange Programme – grantees thus seem to be in a good position to enter a European conversation and public debate. But why do we see so little of that?

We need to stop defining the movement of people only in technocratic terms of learning mobility and outcomes, credits and ‘mobility windows’. Intercultural dialogue and cross-border public debate should become part and parcel of international and European education.

We need to develop more visible forums for such exchanges, both during Erasmus stays and later, both physical and virtual. The European Council will decide shortly on the next generation of mobility programmes. Erasmus for All will put a stronger emphasis on preparation, integration, de-briefing and follow-up. That is a good thing.

Under the title “Europe!”, DAAD has supported 17 events across Europe over the past 12 months to discuss the crisis and other European issues. These events have attracted both local and German students and alumni.

It has been a rewarding experience, although the events have not always drawn large crowds. Even the impatient ones sometimes need to be patient – and new formats and different media will need to be explored.


As yet, there are very few media outlets that could in any way be described as European. With this state of affairs, knowledge of several languages is essential for people to simply know what their neighbours are thinking and arguing about.

There again, academic mobility may help. Under Erasmus for all, language learning will be more systematically supported, and rightly so. Academic cooperation and mobility may help eventually to overcome the crisis, but right now they may be among its victims.

According to a Eurydice report, public expenditure for higher and adult education went down last year by 31% in Cyprus, 30% in Lithuania and 25% in Greece in real terms. In Italy, only one in five retiring faculty members is being replaced.

Under these circumstances international cooperation, although it is needed now more than ever, is frequently giving way to more immediately pressing needs, such as paying staff salaries, and buying essential books and periodicals for libraries or chemicals for labs.

A number of bilateral programmes have already been interrupted for lack of funding. Professors cannot visit their partner institutions; young researchers cannot get travel grants for conferences.

In bilateral programmes, more fortunate organisations may shoulder more than their usual share of the total cost on a temporary basis. EU funds both for education and research will be needed to sustain existing links and forge new ones.

The European Commission, and the European Council, will need to be more flexible when it comes to the traditional division of labour and responsibility between national governments and European institutions.

We simply cannot afford to lose a generation of promising researchers to unemployment and emigration. We cannot afford for those who remain in academia in more precarious and badly paid positions not to engage in European and international cooperation, and thus possibly be more provincial and less productive in the long run.

* Ulrich Grothus is deputy secretary general and director for strategy and projects at the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD.