EU student exchange programme outdated, says founder
The EU needs to upgrade its 22-year old student exchange programme and move towards more cutting-edge educational policies, one of its founders told this website.
Established in the late 1980s, the Erasmus programme has seen some 2 million students spend a semester in another European country and get their studies recognised back home.
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The European Commission proposal initially met resistance in France, Germany and the UK, who were unwilling to spend money on a community-funded student exchange programme in parallel to their existing national schemes.
One of the advocates of the project was French activist Franck Biancheri, founder of a pan-European student network (AEGEE), who managed to convince the then French president, Francois Mitterand, to throw his weight behind the exchange scheme.
But now Mr Biancheri has grown critical of what he says is the inertia that has taken over the programme.
"Erasmus was new twenty years ago, so it's extremely old as an educational programme nowadays," he told EUobserver in a phone interview.
In his view, the scheme, which costs €440 million a year, should move beyond simply facilitating students exchange to accommodating the more pressing needs of the enlarged European Union.
"We need to produce young managers trained to work throughout the EU, at ease in several languages and community law," he said.
Another branch of the programme should focus on democracy and facilitate short-term exchanges of young Europeans. There is a need for "more civic oriented" actions, to see what students think and expect from Europe as young citizens.
The classic six-month funded scheme should then gradually be given back to member states and regions, Mr Biancheri proposed.
"The EU programme should evolve to cutting-edge educational policies, responding to the Union's current needs," he stressed.
He sees a role for European student organisations such as AEGEE in pushing for such an educational reform at community level. It is important for students to make their voice heard, he argues, particularly on a demographically ageing continent where pension system reforms are more likely to bring votes than student programmes.
EU leadership problem
However, the French activist admitted this is a difficult task due to the current "lack of leadership" at European level for EU projects.
"At that time, there were leaders like Francois Mitterand, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Delors, Margaret Thatcher, and we managed to push for the Erasmus programme. But now 90 percent of the leaders have no interest in similar projects," he said.
Mr Biancheri spoke disparagingly of the 1968 'baby boomers' now in power, who were never interested in Europe in their youth, but rather in opposing US policies and "flower power."
Mediocrity has become the "leitmotiv in EU leadership" and the newer generations have failed to shake up the system, he said.
"I hope the next generation of leaders from eastern Europe will change the system. But it is not yet clear if they are really young in mind or just age."
See more on European education in EUobserver's special focus section