The Erasmus+ review: More than a European funding programme

Michael Gaebel, Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association, highlights the upcoming European Commission Erasmus+ review

The European Commission’s Erasmus+ Programme is of major importance for European higher education institutions. Like its predecessors, it provides funding for international staff and student mobility, inter-university cooperation, and wider engagement with employers and society. It also stimulates the development and spread of innovative practices, contributes to policy making and, by doing so, underpins the building of European-minded citizens and a united Europe.

While the importance of this programme is uncontested, an issue for scrutiny is whether and how it can be improved. As the programme is set to expire at the end of 2020, this question is currently up for debate. The Commission launched the midterm review of Erasmus+ in early 2016 and will hold a public consultation in March of this year. The results, expected out in December, will be the basis of the development of a new programme.

The European University Association (EUA), representing more than 800 universities that together enrol 17 million students, held its own consultation on the matter, asking its members to provide feedback on their first-hand experiences with Erasmus+. The Association recently published its report and initial conclusions on how the Commission can improve the programme.

Erasmus+ report spots room for improvement

From the report, some needed improvements clearly emerge: The rules and processes for application, management and reporting have to be further simplified. Changes from the previous programme, such as the move towards paperless processes and new support tools, are a step in the right direction. However, more needs to be done to relieve heavy administrative burdens and to better the tools already in place.

Furthermore, universities widely acknowledge that Erasmus+ is insufficiently funded. Under some actions, the number of grants simply needs to be increased as success rates fall well below 20%. This is unacceptable given the enormous amount of time and work that goes into applications. As most higher education institutions in Europe are funded by taxpayers, failed applications translate into wasted public money. The complex differences between the economic situations of the various member states also need to be taken into consideration as this too can have an impact on participation.

On a brighter note, the EUA findings point out that Erasmus+ came with a number of improvements compared to its predecessor programmes. These include a more streamlined and transparent programme structure, as well as better opportunities for cooperation and exchange with universities outside of Europe, and with non-university entities. This provides a solid foundation for further improvement.

Funding with flexibility in mind

Importantly, when addressing these issues, the Commission should consider shifting environments. Recent challenges, such as war in Europe’s neighbourhood, massive increases in refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the UK’s imminent exit from the Union, require an active response from higher education and research institutions. While such events cannot be foreseen, EUA has long stressed that the programme needs to be designed with flexibility in mind.

Erasmus+ is much more than a European funding programme. If its designers get it right, it could prove to be not only a safe long-term investment in international exchange and cooperation in higher education, but it could underpin European integration and innovation – not to mention boost international recognition. In addition, Erasmus+ has the capacity to foster civil society exchanges with countries and regions with which official relations are difficult – and this can be quite an asset in turbulent times. All in all, for one of the smaller items on the EU budget, Erasmus+ holds the potential for an impressive payoff.

Michael Gaebel

Director of Higher Education Policy

European University Association

@euatweets

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