In June 1987, the Erasmus Programme began. Millions of people took part over the years. Today, the student exchange programme is as important as ever.
by Marie Schneider
They say Erasmus is not one year in your life but rather your life in one year – and that saying is true. During your time abroad you experience lots of great emotions, you face different cultures and new challenges, you make friends but most importantly: you learn a lot about yourself.
When the Erasmus programme started, no one could have guessed how successful this programme would become. “The initial political breakthrough was made in 1976 when European Ministers of Education agreed to kick-start an education action programme which crucially included the seed of what grew into the Erasmus scheme”, explains Hywel Ceri Jones who was Head of Department, Director for Education, Training and Youth Policy, and Director of the Commission’s Task Force for Human Resources, Education, Training and Youth responsible for the negotiation, development and management of the Erasmus programme.
It would take until 1987 to start the programme being called Erasmus which is actually supposed to be an acronym (for European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), also inspired by the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Its goal was to improve mobility between European institutions of higher education. In the first year of the programme only 3.244 students from eleven countries participated. Between 1987 and 2017 supported a predicted amount of over 4 million students.
The “Erasmus life”
However, until 2013 the Erasmus programme was actually part of the Lifelong Learning Programme which also included programmes for vocational education and training (Leonardo da Vinci), actions for schools (Comenius) and adult education (Grundtvig). By then, though, the programme had already reached lots of attention and promotion. Even popular culture embraced the so-called “Erasmus life” (one should definitely watch the classic “L’Auberge Espagnol”) and the term itself became part of university language. So when the European Commission was looking for a new title for its international programme, obviously the fame and the reputation of Erasmus played a huge role. Since 2014 the Erasmus+ programme combines the Lifelong Learning Programme with other programmes such as Youth in Action and five international cooperation programmes. Wait, Erasmus+ is more than student exchange? – Yes, it definitely is. It also includes actions in the field of youth, sports, education and training and nowadays it is the biggest and most important program in those fields.
However, especially at the moment Erasmus is facing stormy times: With Brexit, low participation in elections and tendencies of political parties to focus more on one’s own nationality, the idea of cultural exchange is even more important than ever. Ongoing discussions about the future of the programme concerning the budget or the recognition of grades seem to forget the very heart of the programme: uniting students in diversity and strengthening the European idea.
For a better understanding
“Going abroad has not only changed the way I look at other cultures but also how you look upon your own”, says Stefanie P. who went on exchange in Turku, Finland. “During my semester abroad I met many people from different European countries but also from other continents. By getting in touch with them I realized that it is very different how we perceive our own country and how others see it,” she explains. “It might be simple things such as people believing all Germans would wear dirndl and leather pants all day or realizing that most Germans have lots of insurances – just in case. Even though the first one is of course obviously a stereotype thanks to most visitors only ending up in Bavaria, the second example is going more in-depth and has a lot to do with our need for safety in Germany whereas it would be rather uncommon in the U.S. to simply pay for an insurance that you might never need. All in all, I realized that by having to explain my own culture I reflected much more on it than ever before. But the same happened the other way round. We also discussed historical events or politics and we could see quite some differences depending on where you grew up.” Getting familiar with these perspectives is a first step towards a better understanding, Stefanie discovered for herself.
Many students who have been on exchange like to reminisce about their time abroad, mentioning making new friends and experiencing something new. But even though we celebrate 30 years of Erasmus, many issues are reappearing. Financial issues and personal ties are still major obstacles for students to become mobile. However, lack of information, fear of recognition problems, long bureaucratic procedures, doubts about the quality of studies abroad or the fear of prolonged studies still play a role in the minds of potential students. Further, there are almost no measures dealing with period after the exchange and supporting students facing the so-called “Post-Erasmus Depression”.
“Erasmus basically is a lifestyle. You learn a lot and gain a lot of experience,” explains Stefanie P., “so once you come back you feel like something is missing. You miss the people you met during your time abroad and the lightness. Because basically you live each day like it was your last and once you come back you face reality again.”
“The only thing that helps me get through this depression is meeting the friends I made. I am still going to Padova each year and meet with friends”, says Johannes M., who had spent his Erasmus semester in Italy. Stefanie P. enthuses: “Berlin, Rome, Vienna, New York – having friends all over the world definitely has its perks.”
Joining the network of Erasmus
“When I came back from my Erasmus, I wanted my life to be colourful and more international”, says Johannes, “Thus, I joined an organisation supporting international students. We organize trips and many other events and I also regularly meet other organizers from other cities and countries. It is amazing!”
But besides the personal growth, also the academic career can be pushed by attending courses you may not have at your home university or getting involved in group works. You get familiar with working in an international environment during your studies already which is a good basis for seeking a job abroad later on as those interpersonal competencies become more and more important, be it language skills or intercultural competencies.
The Erasmus Impact Study, based on interviews with more than 88.000 students, teachers and businesses, found that those who took part were instilled with an international outlook that stayed with them later in life. Around 40 per cent of students went on to live and work abroad. The international experience further improved the job prospects of young people. While at the moment one in five young people in Europe is currently jobless, 64 per cent of businesses said international experience would make a candidate more employable.
And even though this sounds like this is only relevant for students, it is not: Erasmus+ is not only for students. Teachers, staff, apprentices and even pupils can get involved in Erasmus+ activities and the program also promotes cooperation between Higher Education Institutions resulting, for example, in joint degrees. Therefore it plays an important role in educating people from all ages and many levels. “I work with international students and colleagues on a daily basis and I would not want to have it any other way. I feel like I learned a lot about their cultures and traditions but also each of them individually”, mentions Marie K. who embraces the opportunity to go abroad, even as staff at a university. “Meeting colleagues from other countries is an enriching experience. Understanding their education system and what challenges they are facing helps our cooperation and sharing best practices is really important.”
“The Erasmus idea should be compulsory – not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers”, famous writer Umberto Eco suggested once in an interview. Erasmus affects three dimensions for students and staff who become involved: Firstly the functional mobility that ensures students to undertake the same courses as the students from the country they are visiting. Secondly the promotion of European citizenship. Last but not least it is, thirdly, about becoming independent and developing the confidence to take the initiative and make choices.
So when looking at current politics and developments the wish of Umberto Eco is becoming even more relevant. So let’s hope that the 4 million beneficiaries of the Erasmus+ programme will make sure that tendencies of nationalism can be fought against by holding European values high. Because Erasmus today is Europe tomorrow!
Marie Schneider visited Dublin with the Erasmus programme in the winter semester 2010/11. From 2012 to 2014 she was member of the National Board of Erasmus Student Network Deutschland e.V.