The European Economic and Social Committee welcomes the Proposal for a Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing an action programme for the enhancement of quality in higher education and the promotion of intercultural understanding through co-operation with third countries (Erasmus Mundus) (2009-2013), which extends and improves the current Erasmus Mundus action programme, which the EESC also welcomed in its time.
In the Committee's view, the aim of making European universities centres of excellence attracting students from all over the world is of the utmost importance and should help to demonstrate the high quality of higher education and research in Europe.
However, so that the programme should not contribute to the brain drain from third countries, it urges the Commission to study, in cooperation with third-country authorities and universities, strategies to encourage students and lecturers to return to their countries of origin once the period of learning, teaching or research has finished.
More specifically, the universities themselves could establish return strategies including compensation measures.
The EESC notes the contribution that the new action programme will make to boosting mobility for lecturers by allocating teaching staff 40% of all planned scholarships, as opposed to the 16.6% under the current programme which is still in force, and therefore urges Member States and the Commission to ensure that barriers arising from national legislation affecting the mobility of lecturers and students are eliminated as quickly and effectively as possible.
On the supply side, the EESC considers that the selection procedures should provide for EU-level compensation measures in order to prevent serious imbalances between students' and academics' areas of study and regions of origin and the destination Member States, and consequently urges the Commission to include this in the proposal under consideration. In order to ensure that the entire European area for higher education is promoted, the Committee fully supports the requirement that partnerships must be established between at least three universities from at least three countries in order to be eligible to apply for the scheme.
The Committee would also point out that this programme should not serve as a pretext for introducing a commercial perspective into higher education, but on the contrary, as envisaged in the proposal, help step up the fight against all forms of social exclusion.
In order to make the European University Area better known, the Committee suggests creating a European university portal, allowing access to the portals of the different European universities, and creating departments in EU representations specifically geared to providing information about the European University Area.
The text should also contain a reference to the role of the social dialogue partners (employees and employers' representatives), on account of their awareness of the skills and qualifications which the labour market really requires. The economic and social development needs of third countries should also be taken into account when planning the content of masters degrees and doctorates.
Since in many developing countries, only public universities have the capacity to democratise higher education, eradicating discrimination and inequality (one of the declared objectives of the Erasmus Mundus programme), the programme could help consolidate and bolster public universities in third countries.