In its over 25-year history, the Erasmus programme has transformed the lives of countless European students. To date, over three million Europeans have had the Erasmus experience.
THERE may be great differences in the lives and prospects of an economics student in Helsinki, a biology student in Spain and a future teacher in Romania, but what they all share is access to a student exchange period abroad. Thanks to the European Commission’s Erasmus programme, going abroad as part of their studies has never been easier.
Erasmus might be the most significant student exchange programme in the world, and yet this definition doesn’t come even close in describing its overall significance to European youth. It’s not a stretch to say that Erasmus has become something much more than a mere mobility programme, having entered the European consciousness and promoted European integration in a way that sets it apart from the long list of other EU initiatives.
1. Where are you studying/ did you study?
2. Was it a good experience?
Tomas Peltola (Finnish)
1) I’m an exchange student in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for about five months. I’ll be back in February 2014.
2) The main reason for my exchange was that I wanted to gain international experience and to get a completely new and different approach to industrial design. At the same time my goal was to go to the middle of nowhere. Slovenia is a small country, and for many people it is an unknown place. So my interest was to find out about how people live there and how everything works there. I recommend to all who have the opportunity to go abroad, because it opens up an entirely new perspective and gives you thousands of positive experiences.
Paola Montevecchi (Italian)
1) Aalto University of Art and Design Helsinki as exchange student ( from January to July 2013.
2) I chose Finland because I always wanted to confront with a system of education so different from the Italian and considered the best in the world, improve my English ( in Finland everyone speck English! ) and to be in contact with the amazing nature there; and I must admit that I was thrilled about the experience and not disappointed about all the things.
Julian Röder (German)
1) Four Months in Finland from end of August until middle of December 2009.
2) It was unforgettable, life-changing, the best time of my life. Four Months of perfect balance between studies, parties and free time (traveling), awesome exchange students (and sexy Russian chicks) and Finnish tutors – not to forget the tastiest canteen food ever.
Actually that’s the reason why I’m convinced (and told all my fellow students in Germany who also were abroad) that I had the best exchange of all my fellow students and probably the best exchange possible.
More info on Fraternité 2020 can
Speaking to the newspaper La Stampa last year, Umberto Eco, an Italian semitiocian and novelist, accredited Erasmus for having helped create the first truly European generation. “I call it a sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children.” The effect has been so notable that Eco even proposed that something similar be made compulsory for everyone, so that workers of all trades would “need to spend time in other countries within the European Union; they should integrate.”
Also in economical terms the programme is significant, and may have a role to play in solving the high unemployment levels that affect the young populations in many parts of Europe. For former Erasmus students, it’s easier to go abroad again, which has helped form a new, more mobile workforce in Europe.
Erasmus by numbers
Looking at the figures about the Erasmus programme gives some indication of the scope with which it has had an impact on the European young. The programme was launched in 1987, when 3,000 students from 11 member states went on an exchange. Since then, it has supported over three million student exchanges. Finland joined the Erasmus programme in 1992, among five other EU members, and presently 34 countries participate. The initiative is set to expand even further in 2014, with plans to extend it also beyond Europe’s borders.
Currently, every year sees a multitude of students travel for a student exchange or work placement: during the 2011-12 academic year, the latest for which statistics are available, over 250,000 European students – roughly equal to Espoo’s population – went on an Erasmus exchange.
As for Finland, over 5,200 students went on an exchange in the academic year 2011-12, and about 70,000 students in total have participated. In absolute figures this doesn’t place Finland high on the list of countries, but when contrasted with the overall number of graduate population, the share of Erasmus students is at over 10 per cent. According to this measure, Finland is one of the biggest senders of Erasmus students, surpassed only by Liechtenstein (the European average is at 4.7 per cent). The number of incoming students nevertheless exceeds that of outgoing exchange students, being at 6,900 for the academic year 2011-12.
A few more statistics: The average duration of student exchange is six months, and has constantly been so for the last decade. Spain is the biggest sender of students (39,545 in the academic year 2011-12) followed by Germany, France, Italy and Poland. Spain was also the most popular destination (at 39,300 students), ahead of France, Germany, the UK and Italy. (For those interested in further figures on Erasmus student mobility, the EU has comprehensive statistics online.)
Who goes and who doesn’t
Although Erasmus has caught on among Finnish students, on a closer look there are notable differences within the universities in the country in how many of their students take the opportunity to go on an exchange. Generally speaking, students in the southern and western parts of Finland are more likely to go than in the east or north.
One factor behind this discrepancy may be in the students’ personal history and previous experiences with moving. “In many universities of applied sciences in the northern and eastern parts of Finland, a big proportion of students are from the same town where their school is,” says Anne Siltala, Erasmus Programme Manager at the Centre for International Mobility (CIMO), the national agency for the Erasmus programme in Finland. “Going abroad might therefore represent a bigger step for them than for those students who have already moved away from their hometown because of their studies.”
There is also another discrepancy, namely between men and women: according to CIMO’s statistics, women form a larger share of Erasmus students. This may also be one of the reasons why humanities and social sciences are overrepresented among exchange students – typically the majority of the students of these disciplines are women. Also a relatively large share of business and economics students go on an exchange, while students of technology and natural sciences are less likely to go.
In terms of financing their year abroad, students are entitled also abroad to the student financial aid that they receive from the state. Furthermore, all Erasmus exchange students get an Erasmus grant, which over the recent years has been about 230 euros per month. Siltala estimates that although not an enormous sum, the grant is undoubtedly helpful in covering some of the expenses of moving and living abroad. “I’m certain that if the grant wouldn’t be available, the number of exchange students would be lower,” she says.
Erasmus thus provides a simplified procedure for going on an exchange and even some financial assistance. The final piece in the puzzle is the student’s motivation to go. Apart from the desire to experience a foreign culture and meet people, the most common reasons that students give for going is the hope that an exchange period will help them later in their professional lives, thanks to international experience and improved language skills, says Tarja Virta, International Officer at the International Office of the University of Turku.
Siltala notes that there is, indeed, some validity behind such expectations: a survey by the European Commission found that those who had been on an Erasmus exchange seemed to have found jobs within their fields quicker than average, and had slightly higher starting salaries.
“Of course, if you’ve once lived abroad, it’s easier to go again. So in that sense former Erasmus students are more likely to be part of European mobile workforce,” Siltala says. And when young people come together from around the continent, relationships are naturally born, which can lead to the kinds of enduring personal commitments that Eco observed.
“I’ve heard it said that not since the Second World War have there been so many Europeans living outside their home countries!” Siltala says. According to her, the European Commission is currently conducting a thorough investigation into mobility and its impact, which should produce more information about the long-term effects of student mobility. But even if students don’t end up moving abroad, Siltala surmises that the programme has had a big impact on people’s attitudes, on how they relate to the rest of Europe. “I’m sure that going on an exchange or meeting exchange students here in Finland helps to create a certain sense of European identity.”
The Erasmus project as we know it will come to an end this year, as it is part of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme, which will end at the end of 2013. Yet this is not the end, as Erasmus is set to return stronger than before in the form of a new programme: Erasmus+.
The first Erasmus+ students will start their exchange periods in autumn next year. Erasmus+ will be an umbrella programme, including also other activities than those relating to student mobility. But from the point of view of exchange students there will not be radical changes, apart from certain steps that will broaden the programme’s scope. Perhaps the biggest immediate difference is that students will be able to spend up to 12 months on a study exchange or work placement abroad for every degree level they study – currently the exchanges are restricted to one student exchange and one work placement per person. In the new system, there is also the new possibility for students to go on a work placement even after graduating.
Also the geographical reach will expand, as the ambition is to turn Erasmus+ into a global mobility programme. Negotiations are still underway, however, so going outside Europe will not be possible yet in 2014. “There are already EU funded programmes that take place outside Europe, for example in the shape of different kinds of capacity building initiatives,” says Siltala from CIMO. “It’s likely that Erasmus is extended first to include such countries and initiatives.”
Such is the appeal of Erasmus that the programme is also the subject of the first European Citizens’ Initiative. Called Fraternité 2020, the initiative calls on the EU to provide more funds to exchange programmes, make skills development a more integral part of the exchange experience, and improve the monitoring of the programme’s results.
In order for the European Commission to examine the initiative, Fraternité 2020 would need to collect one million signatures – an unlikely outcome, as the deadline for this was 1 November and at the time of writing the number of collected signatures was at 67,000. Undeterred, the organisers of the initiative push on, exemplifying the kind of commitment that Erasmus can invoke.
“We hoped to gather at least 100,000 signatures,” says Luca Copetti, member of the Citizens’ Committee. The hope is that this will still help raise awareness of Fraternité 2020’s goal to increase the amount dedicated to exchange programmes in the EU budget, which has been at 1.2 per cent. The thinking goes that the money invested in these initiatives more than pays itself back: “Erasmus students increase their competences and many former participants are today in a leading position in companies across Europe and, in fact, the whole world,” says Copetti. “In this way, Erasmus certainly has benefited Europe much more than it has cost.”
Copetti emphasises that Erasmus has been essential in permitting the kind of student mobility that we have seen in the recent years.
“Before the establishment of the Erasmus programme, going abroad was the privilege of a lucky few that had families rich enough to pay for their stay abroad. Thanks to Erasmus, many more people can go abroad today, and Erasmus has helped students from disadvantaged social backgrounds to reach their full potential.”
And, when asked what is Fraternité 2020’s motivation, Copetti explains:
“When you have been on Erasmus and you know what a life-changing experience it is, you simply want everybody else to have a chance to have that experience, too,”
With such positive spirit supporting it, the Erasmus programme is set to continue for the foreseeable future, offering new generations of Europeans the opportunity to experience the Erasmus spirit first-hand.
In these times when the subject of austerity seems to go hand in hand with talk about public spending, it is noteworthy that the Erasmus programme will not only continue but also expand further. May many more generations of students go and explore their continent, the world, and its people.
PHOTOS: Satu Haavisto / CIMO