Civil society and students recognise programme's huge potential but call for more funding and opportunities for the disadvantaged
Since 1987, the Erasmus exchange programme has had a major impact on the lives of more than 9 million EU citizens by allowing them to take part in multicultural exchanges and develop new skills. At an event organized by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) on 18 May, Erasmus was recognized as a milestone in the creation of a European identity.
The event was celebrated on the programme's 30th anniversary and included civil society representatives, policy-makers, academics and Erasmus students. It offered a chance to take a look back at the achievements of and outline the challenges facing Erasmus.
“Erasmus is a fantastic European acquisition for young people. It must be extended to secondary school students and to workers, especially young apprentices”, said EESC President, Georges Dassis, in his opening speech. Addressing the students, he added: “You must take up the torch and militate for European integration. We want to make a Europe of citizens but we cannot do that by staying at home. I wish you to be the first activists of European integration”.
This message was echoed by the rest of participants, who highlighted Erasmus' huge cultural potential and contribution to the development of a true European identity. "If we want our youth to feel truly European, they need to experience Europe directly, it should be a Europe that talks to their hearts and not to their heads", stressed Martine Reicherts, Director-General for Education and Culture, European Commission.
30 years of cultural and educational exchange
One of the key figures behind the idea of Erasmus, former Commission President Jacques Delors, retraced its creation through the words of his advisor, Jean-Pierre Bobichon.
Mr. Delors emphasised the difficulties in envisaging a programme for educational cooperation that would be perceived as an attempt at harmonising national school systems. A big step forward was the Education Ministers' 1976 agreement to promote joint courses between universities, which was the seed of Erasmus.
Since then much progress has been made with the inclusion of many more students (from 3,000 exchanges per year initially to 347,100 today) and areas through Erasmus +, which targets apprentices, vocational training and teachers, education staff and youth workers. "We also have achieved a philosophy for higher education in Europe, creating a real network of universities", said Pierre de Maret, Honorary Rector of the ULB.
Erasmus+ also brought enormous benefits in terms of increased employability of young people. Recent data shows that Erasmus+ students are twice more likely to find a job after graduation than their peers.
The EESC Group Presidents, Jacek Krawczyk (Employers' Group), Gabriele Bischoff (Workers' Group), and Luca Jahier (Various Interests Group) stressed that Erasmus can help overcome the current crisis and show that Europe can deliver jobs and welfare for citizens.
The future of Erasmus+: a more inclusive and better funded programme
However, there are still some hurdles that prevent the programme from reaching its fullest potential. Participants expressed concerns over limited funding and poor access for people with socioeconomic disadvantages and disabilities.
To address these issues, the EESC, as the voice of civil society, is working on an opinion that will feed into the EC's mid-term evaluation of Erasmus +. The document, which will be debated at the next Plenary session (31 May – 1 June), calls for the inclusion of socio-economic criteria to boost participation of disadvantaged groups and stresses the need to improve civil society's participation in the governance of the programme as well as cross-sectoral cooperation.
During the event, the co-rapporteur Tatjana Babrauskiene also called for increased funding and highlighted the importance of Erasmus in the fight against radicalism, xenophobia and sexism.
In closing the debate, Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, EESC Vice-President, called on the students to continue to take advantage of the huge potential of Erasmus+ for social and educational exchanges.