Erasmus+ opens to world, offers post-Brexit UK access

A model for the post-Brexit participation of the United Kingdom in European higher education is offered in the European Commission’s new proposal for the Erasmus+ initiative, with its surprise opening to the world. The proposal also doubles the budget for the 2021-27 Erasmus+ and trebles learning and mobility opportunities to 12 million people.

The Commission calls for the future Erasmus+ to be open to third countries. The European University Association or EUA said this was a “proactive response” that would open the door for participation of the UK after Brexit – perhaps even provide a way forward for UK participation in other areas of European higher education and research.

It could also, said EUA Senior Policy Coordinator Thomas Jørgensen, “be an interesting option for closer cooperation between universities all over the world” and provide opportunities for further higher education internationalisation.

Opening to the world

Forging mobility and cooperation with third countries was a “bit of a surprise” but a welcome one, Jørgensen told University World News. The EUA reads this new aim as a starting point for more global cooperation, with a primary rationale being enabling UK participation.

Erasmus has been open for association by other countries in the current round – but only for countries that are very close to Europe, such as Macedonia and Turkey – and there is now the potential for non-EU countries to have a much closer relationship with the Erasmus+.

Some countries might want to associate because of the good brand of Erasmus+ and European higher education in general, although Jørgensen stressed that Erasmus+ would not be a free-for-all – that both sides would have to agree, that participating in Erasmus+ could be expensive, and that the EU did not have to take in all countries. Still, it would be interesting to see whether the legal possibility would be translated into a political possibility.

“Britain is in some ways first in line because everybody would like to see British association to the programme. This is definitely a new rule that allows Britain to enter,” Jørgensen said.

“But we don’t know how that is going to be implemented. We don’t know if other countries are really interested or willing to pay the kind of money needed, and we don’t know what the political interest of the EU is or how many countries it would like to see associated.”

The Erasmus+ proposal

The new Erasmus+ proposal, adopted by the European Commission on 30 May, increases the budget for this highly successful educational mobility initiative from the current €14.7 billion to €30 billion (US$35 billion).

It will support 12 million people – a massive upscaling from the nine million students supported since the foundation of Erasmus in 1987 – though not all mobility will be physical.

“Its focus on ‘evolution, not revolution’ means that the Erasmus programme will continue to cover schools, vocational education and training, higher education and adult learning, youth and sport, but in a more streamlined manner,” said the Commission in a statement. €25.9 billion is for education and training, €3.1 billion for youth and €550 million for sport.

Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics said: “This is by far the biggest increase for any programme in the EU budget we have tabled. And we need to be bold: this programme will support the big ambitions we have for empowering young people, building a European Education Area and strengthening European identity.”
The Commission said in the statement that the aims of its proposal were to:
  • Increase the number of beneficiaries: Support 12 million people, three times as many as in the current Erasmus+. Beneficiaries include school and higher education students, trainees, teachers, trainers, youth workers, sports coaches, and learners in vocational education and training and adult learning staff, including those participating in ErasmusPro.

  • Reach out to people from all social backgrounds: New formats and easier access will make it simpler for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate.

  • Build stronger relations with the rest of the world: Mobility and cooperation with third countries will be boosted through a combination of physical and virtual mobility.

  • Focus on promoting forward-looking study fields: More attention will be given to study fields such as renewable energy, climate change, environmental engineering, artificial intelligence and design.

  • Promote a European identity with a travel experience: A new DiscoverEU initiative will give young people opportunities to discover Europe's cultural heritage and diversity.
“Swift agreement on the overall long-term EU budget and its sectoral proposals is essential to ensure that EU funds start delivering results on the ground as soon as possible” and there is a seamless transition between the current and new long-term budgets, the Commission said.

Universities' response

In a response to the Erasmus+ proposal, the EUA welcomed it as a “solid basis for discussion on the programme’s future, including the much-needed budget increase”.

The EUA – which represents more than 800 universities in 48 European countries and 33 national rectors’ conferences – weighed the Commission proposal against university sector recommendations resulting from an extensive EUA member survey.

It called on the European Commission, Parliament and Council to consider during negotiations that, firstly, the budget should match new policy objectives – those set at the 2017 Gothenburg Social Summit and a related Commission Communication, in particular the creation of a European Education Area by 2025.

Secondly: “Ambitions for social inclusion and equity must translate into concrete actions and appropriate funding.”

And thirdly, new cooperation actions such as the European Universities initiative should not take priority over other types of higher education cooperation as both were equally important and needed sustainable funding.

“Cooperation is as important as mobility. It develops and promotes innovative approaches that tomorrow’s higher education will need. It generates dynamics that go beyond the periods of project funding and sets the basis for high quality mobility exchanges,” said the EUA.

Given the EU’s ambition for a more social Europe, the EUA continued, the proposal required a more explicit stance on social inclusion and equity, including concrete actions and sufficient funding.

Three major challenges

In a nutshell, Thomas Jørgensen told University World News, there were three major challenges. The first was that funding for Erasmus+ higher education activities seemed to have gone relatively down. “So the higher education budget is higher but has not doubled.” The European Parliament has called for the Erasmus budget to triple.

Secondly, there were more policy doors, such as the European Universities initiative. While the Erasmus+ brand was very much student mobility, cooperation between institutions was very important for universities. There was a need for a balance between mobility and cooperation.

Third was the issue of social inclusion. Erasmus+ should itself be open, ensuring that it was accessed more by underprivileged or marginalised students. More social inclusion should be fostered – last Thursday the EUA released a report on diversity, equity and inclusion, including detailed case studies.

“So yes, the money for Erasmus+ has doubled, but is it enough, particularly for higher education?” Jørgensen wondered. “And then there is the need to be really serious about social inclusion.”