Erasmus – little more than an EU-subsidised party?
With the European elections fast approaching it is time to consider the policy changes we want from the next five years.
Although the new Erasmus+ is barely starting life, the elections mean that it is time to look into the next negotiations about Erasmus, starting in 2017.
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While the most recent reforms did manage to increase access to and funding for the programme, they did not, however, address some of the fundamental structural flaws that the current Erasmus programme faces.
Both of us have spent or are spending a semester abroad studying through the Erasmus programme. Dalia is currently studying at NOVA School of Business and Economics in Lisbon, Portugal, while Viktor spent his last semester studying at Vilnius University, Lithuania. While Erasmus was and continues to be one of the best experiences of our lives, it has also made us question the actual benefits of the Erasmus programme.
The problem might best be captured by a comment that a fellow Erasmus student made when Viktor was studying for a group project together with some local students:
“Come on man, you are Erasmus! It’s time to party!”
While the comment itself does not seem harmful, it is revealing. Being on Erasmus nowadays has very little to do with actually studying and engaging with the local students. Instead it has become an EU-subsidised party in a foreign country.
The way that we read the Erasmus Charter it has two main objectives: one is to increase the quality of research and education within the European Higher Education Area; the other is to foster mobility within Europe. However, the lack of sanctions within the Charter has created an unhealthy culture that to a large extent has decoupled the Erasmus students from their surrounding communities and the higher education institution (HEI) that hosts them.
At most HEIs, Erasmus students, along with other international students, are cramped together in international housing without the possibility of interacting with local students.
In most places, Erasmus student are only admitted into a restricted number of electives. These courses are designed for local students and do not take into account the diversity within the class. Instead of promoting intercultural dialogue to strengthen the learning experience, they end up isolating one part of the class from the other.
The programme has also been caught in a bad spiral combining an unhealthy ‘Erasmus culture’ and a lack of academic requirements. Erasmus is being communicated as a programme of cultural rather than academic exchange where all the students are considered equal in terms of academic evaluation.
Moreover, it is common that Erasmus students are usually introduced to the local night life first, with very little emphasis placed on local culture.
Too few academic requirements
The unhealthy party culture is, to a large extent, the result of too few academic requirements being placed on the students.
The institutions do not place these requirements on the students because they fear that it will create a reputation as a place that fails students who then risk having to study more when they return to their home universities. This in turn leads to the party culture, because the students have few or no responsibilities.
So, where are we now – has Erasmus fallen short? To a large extent, yes.
There is an urgent need to address the fundamental structural challenges that we are starting to experience with the programme because unfortunately, the main goals of Erasmus have not been achieved.
First of all, the issue about the unhealthy ‘Erasmus culture’ has to be addressed. The primary responsibility of this lies within the local institutions and the local branches of Erasmus Students’ Network.
A larger emphasis has to be placed on local history and culture during the introduction week. The courses and housing at the institutions also need to be reorganised in a way that they foster interaction between the local and international students.
The institutions also have to start placing an actual work load on the students; requiring the students to make an investment if they want to be able to pass their studies. The institutions need to have an incentive in the Erasmus Charter to do this; otherwise it is simply too tempting for students to take a free ride which jeopardises the quality of the entire system.
Strengthening the link between the universities and local and international students will also increase the Erasmus students’ ties to and understanding of the specific country. A student cannot be expected to settle in a country or disseminate information about it if all they know is the local nightlife.
These are all changes that are easy to achieve, but require both the EU and the institutions to start thinking of quality and mobility in new ways.
Quality and mobility in education is not only about handing out a grant, it is about the unique experience that the individual has to unfold its potential within.
Viktor Groenne is a student from Denmark. Dalia Miklaseviciute is a student from Lithuania.