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Twenty-five years after its launch, the ERASMUS exchange scheme is the best known EU programme and the most successful student exchange scheme in the world. Yet in December 2012 the European Parliament only narrowly averted a funding crisis. E&M explores the problem and tries to explain the value of ERASMUS.

The ERASMUS problem

If you ask a European citizen about one benefit of the EU, the ERASMUS programme is one of the very few concrete things they could name. ERASMUS enables students in higher education to spend between 3 months and a year in another European country. Yet the ERASMUS programme was recently saved from bankruptcy after a last-minute agreement, formally approved by the European Parliament on December 12th, plugged a €90 million shortfall in the 2012 budget. The Commission also committed to providing around 280 000 ERASMUS student grants for next academic year. Currently, the cost of the ERASMUS programme totals less than 2% of the total EU budget.

The short term funding measures agreed upon mask the fact that no decision has yet been taken on how to fulfil the ambitious 'ERASMUS for All' programme, now given the slightly patronising title 'YES Europe' (Union Programme for Education, Training, Youth and Sport), which would bring a number of education schemes under one umbrella beyond 2014. Arguments over funding are delaying its adoption, despite widespread support both for continuing the programme and for unifying the different strands.

WHO BENEFITS FROM ERASMUS?

Since its beginnings in 1987, the programme has provided more than 2.5 million European students with the opportunity to go abroad to study or for a job placement. Yet the figures would have been even higher if the EU had had the resources to match demand, which exceeds the availability of grants in most participating countries - one reason why people can opt for a zero-grant ERASMUS if they are turned down. The average monthly ERASMUS grant, designed to cover part of the additional costs of living abroad and travel, is about €250.

The three most popular destinations for ERASMUS students in 2012-11 were Spain, France and Germany.

The three most popular destinations for ERASMUS students in 2010-11 were Spain, France and Germany. These countries also sent the most students abroad. But if you break these numbers down as a proportion of the national student population, the tiny, wealthy Luxembourg easily wins (see column E for detailed figures). It is followed by Spain (1.92 for student mobility), Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Belgium. On the lower end of the spectrum, you'll find Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom (scores between 0.40 and 0.60), states in which going abroad with ERASMUS is not popular at all, probably for a variety of financial reasons as much as cultural precedence.

What if we were to compare the numbers of students going abroad on an ERASMUS grant with the number of students coming in with such a grant? (see column F). The table below shows which countries have more students going abroad than students coming in (number above 1) and are thus benefiting from the ERASMUS scheme by sending students abroad, and which countries (with a number below 1) are actually hosting more foreign students than they are sending out. Although it could be argued that hosting ERASMUS students broadens the domestic student population as well!

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Photo: Flickr pushandplay (CC BY 2.0)
Get the ERASMUS data by clicking on the image. (original source Eurostat) 

The table makes it obvious that the traditionally poorer Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Latvia are net beneficiaries of the ERASMUS programme, whereas the northwestern corner of the EU - countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the UK and Ireland - are the biggest net contributors in the sense that they host foreign students, rather than encouraging national students to take the step. This might, however, be their own choice.

On current trends, the European Union says it will reach its target of supporting 3 million ERASMUS students by 2012-13. Mobility is increasing rapidly, as is the number of third country students. But other goals, such as the transparency and compatibility of qualifications, are harder to measure. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest it is not always that easy to have grades attained in another country acknowledged. And the European target for overall student mobility by the end of the decade is at least 20 percent. Currently, around 4.5 percent of all students receive an ERASMUS grant, while around 10 percent of students train or study abroad.

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