Can mobility and Erasmus+ be revitalised post crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak has indeed affected activities across all social institutions, including those of European universities. My use of social institution in defining universities in deliberate because:

• It is the societal role of universities that is the most prominent of all their assigned roles; this is the one role that transcends the fabricated economic role that has subjugated the definition of universities within the knowledge economy rationalisation in recent decades.

• In the midst of the pandemic outbreak, it is the social aspect of university life that is disrupted and is being re-created – to some extent – through online teaching and learning platforms (which, by the way, do not compensate for the whole loss, particularly as many universities have rushed to create online contingency plans without prior planning, training and support mechanisms for faculty and students).

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has, over the past two decades, striven to preserve the social role of universities through exchange programmes, mobility, partnerships, credit transfer, continental quality assurance and linguistic and cultural events. One successful European scheme promoting the societal role of universities and facilitating a pan-European identity, as well as cultural and academic exchange, has been the Erasmus programme and its latest version Erasmus+.

Although the European response to the pandemic has been sluggish, lacking the desired coherence and coordination and revealing its chronic political and economic dysfunctions, the European Commission proactively issued a fact sheet on 25 March to provide guidelines and information on Erasmus+ and associated deadlines and activities.

This two-page fact sheet authorises national agencies to invoke the force majeure clause in all cases (postponement, rearrangement and adjustment) “where the application of national limitations affects the implementation of Erasmus+ or European Solidarity Corps projects”.

The role of the European Commission

A number of questions and concerns, alas, remain during and post pandemic with regard to the viability and feasibility of the European Commission guidelines. These include, but are not limited to:

• While many countries are going through strict confinement, what strategies can the national agencies adopt in order to accommodate the financial needs of exchange students who used to work part time on short contracts to make ends meet each month, given that the Erasmus exchange scholarship amount has been unrealistically limited and does not cover living expenses in many European countries?

• Do national agencies have the capacity (financial, human resources and training-wise) to provide care and services to ensure the psychological and mental health of affected students and faculty members?

• What steps should students and researchers or faculty members follow to meet deadlines for contracts, evaluation, etc? In other words, how is the adjustment of deadlines for key 2020 European programmes envisaged?

• What quality assurance schemes are there to ensure all national responses are adequate and sustainable during and post pandemic?

• And most importantly, what role is the European Commission playing in all the above, aside from issuing guidelines just as the European Association for International Education did – which is to be applauded and is appreciated, but is only an immediate response. Simply put, the concern is about the mid- and long-term response strategy of the European Commission: how is it planning to support (from financial, training and quality assurance perspectives) national initiatives during and post pandemic?

Time to act is running out

The good news is that the European Commission can still develop a strategic plan and announce a mid- and long-term post COVID-19 response to revitalise exchange and mobility, but the time to do that is running out.

Why are we running out of time, you may ask? Because European academia is still benefiting from the impact of the Erasmus exchange that happened at the beginning of this academic year.

According to the Erasmus Student Network survey on the impacts of COVID-19 on exchange students, close to 65% of them reported that their mobility plans continued, while for 25% mobility was cancelled and 5% of students said they were unsure about the future of their mobility plans.

Considering the uncertainty associated with the aftermath of lifting lockdown and different national approaches to mobility and reopening of university sites across Europe, it is possible that we will see drastically lowered mobility in the coming academic year.

Hence, the growing onus on the European Commission as we wait for the release of new funding to re-boost exchange in research and teaching, the introduction of minimum standards for safety and health across the EHEA, the simplification of administrative processes of exchange to further motivate students and faculty, assistance for national agencies with training and learning and development in crisis management and contingency planning, as well as the provision of psycho-social assistance and care for exchange students and faculty and the introduction of new support plans for the most vulnerable students in Europe, including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and refugees.

The old Continent has gone through many such crippling events in its history. During all past man-made or natural atrocities, the socio-cultural bonds of its nations and their profound belief in social inclusion and equality have led the European ship to the safe shores of peace and freedom.

This solid basis continues to exist, like burning embers under the ashes; but it needs solid and timely guardianship.

Within the limited window of opportunity that is left for European institutions to react and adapt their strategies and activities, it is possible to avoid the predicted reduction in mobility in the upcoming year and to revitalise one of the oldest social institutions on this Continent: universities.

Dr Juliette Torabian is an adjunct professor in international relations and management at the EU Business School and a senior adviser in education and development.