Erasmus+ should be more inclusive, more green, says review
The review also said that it can do better to make its programme more inclusive and environmentally sustainable by adapting funding levels to the cost of living in different contexts within countries and by incentivising rail travel over cheap flights.
Delays in approving the whole multiannual financial framework of the European Union constrained the start of the new programme in many countries, causing “an untenable funding situation” for higher education institutions and, ultimately, students, with some universities reporting early cuts of up to 34% year-on-year to pay for their Erasmus+ student and staff mobility activities.
Joachim Wyssling, from the European University Foundation (EUF), which helped to prepare the Erasmus+ Review 2021-2022 together with the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) and the European Students’ Union (ESU), said some countries reported a 50% cut in available funds, including Ireland, while France said mobility funds were down 34%, but there did not appear to be any change in Belgium.
Wyssling, deputy executive manager of the EUF, highlighted findings from the study co-funded by the European Union during a webcast hosted by the European Association for International Education (EAIE) on Friday 12 May 2023.
Among the report’s key recommendations is the need to “better anticipate the start of a new programming period to prevent massive operational issues” and avoid higher education institutions and students having to switch to “crisis mode” by ensuring that “funding levels remain constant when transitioning between multiannual financial framework (MFF) programming periods”.
The disruption had a knock-on effect on thousands of institutions and hundreds of thousands of students, said the report, with some universities having to raid funds for other planned activities to keep mobility programmes going and to prevent grants to some students going abroad being delayed, which goes against the ambition to make Erasmus+ more inclusive to less well-off participants.
The new Erasmus+ 2021-27 programme eventually came out of the delayed MFF negotiations between EU member states with a budget for €26.2 billion (US$28.5 billion), compared with €14.7 billion for 2014-20. This will be complemented by about €2.2 billion from the EU’s external instruments.
With increased funding now secured, Wyssling said there is now an opportunity to smooth out how Erasmus+ operates and help to ensure the programme gives more young people from less advantaged backgrounds the chance to participate in study or work placements abroad.
Introducing the webcast on 12 May, Laura Rumbley, associate director for knowledge development and research at the EAIE, said the report was part of a mid-term review, looking at both the start of the current programme and the transition to the next programme beginning in 2028.
The timing of the transition to the Erasmus+ 2021-27 programme probably didn’t help, coming as it did in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite the somewhat shaky start and the new programme being designed as “an evolution rather than a revolution”, it does include several important changes and novelties, such as a stronger focus on “inclusion, sustainability and digitalisation”, according to the review.
The green transition
There is also a greater focus on the green transition, with the new programme including €50 top-up grants to encourage students going abroad to take the bus or train rather than a cheap flight to the study abroad destination.
Wyssling said this should be increased to €250 to enable travel passes, like Interrail, to be purchased “and make green travel the rule rather than the exception in Erasmus+”.
“Taking the train often costs much more than just €50 and might include an overnight stay,” he said.
“We also need to look at more than just cost and look at the experience of travelling by train or bus when going abroad compared to taking a flight,” said Wyssling, who said Erasmus+ was “essentially a journey of discovery” and experiencing different cities and cultures was part of that goal.
Funding as a deterrent
The review said: “The single biggest deterrent to participation in mobility among non-mobile participants is the insufficient level of funding provided,” demonstrated by previous reports such as ESU’s Bologna with Student Eyes, which reported that only half of students participating in intra-European mobility can cover their expenses with their scholarship.
“We welcome the increased social top-up for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but such top-up benefits only 10% of the mobile learners,” said Wyssling.
The review also recommends that to improve the inclusion dimension of Erasmus+, European scholarship schemes should be established “for students at risk in order to facilitate the support for students fleeing countries where they are exposed to danger”.
It also wants the EU to revise the way grant levels are defined to better fit the needs of the students and the socio-economic realities of their destinations.
Wyssling told the webcast that students going to countries with a higher cost of living were not really getting the full recompense from Erasmus+ at the moment as the system is based on low-cost, middle-cost and high-cost countries, but that ignores the difference in the cost of living in bigger cities compared to smaller towns away from the capital.
“The cost can triple staying in Paris compared to a smaller town, and this isn’t reflected at the moment in the student mobility grants, which just look at low-, middle- and higher-cost countries.
“The scheme needs to give higher education institutions the possibility of adjusting grant levels depending on the destination. It doesn’t seem to have much flexibility at the moment,” said Wyssling.
Timing of grant payments
The timing of the grant payments was another issue that needed resolving in the new programme, according to the review, with more than a quarter of students reporting receiving their grants later than one month after the start of their mobilities.
“Differences between countries of origin are stark: in Spain, more than half report receiving their grant later than one month after the start of mobility, followed by France and Italy [while] in Germany, only 16% of outgoing students report receiving their grants later than one month after the start of their mobility,” said the review.
Other issues mentioned in the review include ongoing problems with recognition for the period spent abroad, which the review says impacts “almost every aspect of the Erasmus experience, affecting both the access, the experience itself and the reintegration process”.
Erasmus+ traineeships are also highlighted in the review as a somewhat overlooked part of the Erasmus+ programme.
Interest is growing from students to gain work experience abroad and the European Commission has included references to Erasmus+ traineeships in the new European Strategy for Universities, including a benchmark of 100,000 traineeships per year.
However, trainees report significantly lower satisfaction with their social life compared to participants in Erasmus+ study mobility.
“Trainees struggle to get access to the same support services as their peers doing study mobilities, such as welcome weeks or buddy systems,” says the review, which recommends a greater focus on involving higher education institutions present in cities where the trainees are going and facilitating access to information provided by local student associations through the ErasmusIntern.org platform and the Erasmus+ App.
Staff mobility also gets a mention in the review, which says: “Participation of faculty and staff in mobility is useful not just in and of itself, in that it plays a vital role in furthering the internationalisation of higher education systems and contributing to their modernisation; it can also be seen as a powerful catalyst for ‘turbocharging’ student participation in mobility, by having actors with first-hand experience in Erasmus+ promoting it to students to an even greater extent than what is possible today.”
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.