Following the news of the Erasmus+ scheme being given the green light at European Parliament, LS looks at how students will benefit from an expansion of the study abroad programme and what we can expect in the future.
Erasmus, often described as the best year of people’s lives, is a European-run scheme which allows thousands of students a year to travel to countries within the EU, to either study or work. Since the scheme’s launch in 1988, the programme has offered financial support for those seeking education or work placements to over three million Europeans. From Leeds alone this year there are 273 students studying in Europe. And this number is set to increase following the approval of an ‘Erasmus+ Scheme’ earlier this month.
On November 19 the European Parliament voted in favour of this scheme which will mean a 40 per cent budget increase in Erasmus programmes for the financial period 2014–2020. The ‘Erasmus+ Scheme’, budgeted at 14.7 billion Euros, aims to give financial support to around four million young Europeans. It will widen the criteria for those who can partake in an Erasmus scheme to include apprentices, lecturers, youth workers and trainees. Out of this 14.7 billion Euros, 4.9 million is set to go on grants for those in higher education, meaning that more university students will be given the opportunity to live and study abroad.
Androulla Vasilou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, is one of the key leaders championing this scheme, claiming it will help “improve people’s skills, personal development and employability” and will give financial aid to twice as many people as today. One area which this scheme prioritises is a new loan guarantee for postgraduate students looking to complete their masters in other countries. While some have claimed that there are few differences between this and the old Erasmus programme, ‘Erasmus+’ moves to replace the seven existing programmes with just one, combining Youth in Action, Lifelong Learning Programme and five international cooperation programmes, with the aim of making the application process much easier for those young people interested.
However, whilst the majority of the European Parliament have given their support to this scheme, others have expressed concern at the cost and values of the programme. UK Independence Party MEP Stuart Agnew was just one of those disputing the need for such a programme. In a discussion with the European Parliament on November 19 Agnew argued the unnecessary and “glorified” nature of Erasmus was “cynically using” young people to “further its own objectives” in fostering “European values.” Despite this disparaging opinion, Erasmus+ managed to secure approval by the European Parliament.
It has been estimated that by 2020 nearly 35 per cent of jobs will be highly skilled, while the number of low skilled jobs will continue to fall, making education and an ability to adapt more important than ever. Through programmes such as Erasmus+ people can widen their skill base, develop cross-country relationships and in many cases learn another language, ultimately making them more employable. In fact in a recent survey of people who had participated in the European Voluntary Service taken by the European Commission. 75% of those asked claimed the scheme had improved their career prospects.
It is not just the students that see this success rate. Michelle MacFayden, a spokeswoman for KPMG, one of the largest professional service companies in the world had this to say: “We appreciate that having a level of academic knowledge is an excellent thing to have. However, this alone is not enough.” It is no longer sufficient for students to leave university with a degree and Erasmus+ will be just one way that students can differentiate themselves from other candidates and compete on an international scale.
Students at Leeds are given the opportunity to choose from over 200 institutions, including top universities such as ‘Uppsala Universitet’, ‘Universität Heidelberg’ and ‘Université Charles de Gaulle’. However in many of these places, students must be able to speak the language, which means that often students choose to study outside Europe.
Clive Souter, Head of the Study Abroad Office for Leeds University, claims that “between 10 or 15 per cent of the student body is doing something internationally, but it’s not all within Europe”. In fact, 323 Leeds students this year are studying outside Europe, despite Erasmus grants being given at the moment only to those studying in Europe, although this looks set to change with the new Erasmus+ scheme.
However students do not choose to study abroad merely for educational reasons. It is an opportunity that allows young people to learn to take complete responsibility for themselves, to experience and understand more about different cultures and to become a more well rounded person. This is not to say that academic success is not important, but rather that equally important is the independence and world awareness that programmes such as Erasmus allow for. Heather Parker, former Erasmus student at Leeds, said: “It has been a chapter in my life that I will never forget and one which has changed the way I feel about my future and ambitions”.
Last year there was a huge increase in the number of students applying for year abroad. Clive Souter had this to say: “We experienced a particularly large interest in study abroad last year. “
“While there is an underlying growth of around 40 or 50 students every year going on study abroad, last year when we were doing selection we were quite genuinely shocked at the number of students who applied. We had 200 more applications than the year before.” They attributed this increase to “students who decided not to have a gap year”, instead applying for the year abroad. This number has now reduced back to around 500 students applying per year. However Clive stresses that the scheme is “still definitely alive and well” and that the team at Leeds expect it “to continue to grow”.
Those who participate in Erasmus schemes are given grants, comprised of funding from the European Commission, the home government and local authorities, which averages at around 250 Euros a month, a sum that fluctuates depending on the country they travel to and on their home countries spending.
Back in October 2012 the scheme posted a 90 million Euro budget deficit, leaving many unsure as to whether they would receive their funding. Yet, following the 6 billion Euro budget top-up that EU institutions received in December 2012, ‘Erasmus+’ was one of the projects that was given more funding and that was allowed to continue.
Perhaps there will be more financial problems in the future. Perhaps some countries will not be able to provide as much funding as they need in the future. And perhaps in 2020 the amount of funding going into these schemes will have to be lowered. But if our students and our apprentices are going to be competitive in the global market it is schemes such as Erasmus that we must rely on. Instead of purely spending money on the symptoms of a failing economy, we should move to invest money in the solution: the future generations of highly skilled, internationally competitive, desirable employees.
Click here to see our accompanying interview with Rebecca Taylor, MEP for Yorkshire and Humber.