As the European Union copes with a continuing financial crisis and growing pessimism over European integration, the Erasmus Programme has proven surprisingly resilient. Since its inception, it has expanded to more than 4000 participating education institutions in 33 countries offering mobility opportunities for more than 4 million people. Xavier Prats Monné, director-general for Health and for Food Safety of the European Commission, previously served as director general for Education and Culture of the European Commission, where he was responsible for EU policies in the field of education and for the EU education programs for the 2014–2020 period, including Erasmus+ and Marie Sklodowska Curie.
Grosh: The Erasmus Program was adopted by the European Commission in 1987. What was the primary incentive for creating this program, and how has it evolved?
As usual, with many great ideas, people don’t know how great they are at the outset. Erasmus started with a very simple logic. Mobility and free movement is the most immediate requirement for European integration. That applies to goods, services, people and groups of people—so why not to students? That in itself was enough to start. In the early 1980s, student exchanges supported by the European Commission involved something close to 300 students. The initial proposal for Erasmus had no ambition to be systemic, only symbolic. But then, as sometimes happens, a good idea at the right time can take off. By the end of our budget cycle in 2020, we will have 5 million mobile participants.
Today participants do not only include higher education students, which represent maybe 60 percent of the funding; much of the systemic input of the program has expanded beyond student mobility to also include staff mobility, cooperation between higher education institutions and business, and innovation in pedagogy. And this is incidentally the most important thrust of the latest program for the 2014–2020 period.
Grosh: Have there been any unexpected benefits of European exchange?
Prats Monné: We are now seeing to what extent the program is “changing lives” and “opening minds,” as our motto proclaims. We have many cases showing how a period of mobility abroad, even something as limited as a semester abroad, gives people a very different view of their own future and about what education means in their lives. Along with the benefit for the individual, we also have seen a strong impact on the level of internationalization of many European higher education institutions. We have 4,000 universities in Europe, many of which have not had Oxford’s long international tradition. These institutions, including students and faculty, have been encouraged by the program to look elsewhere and not just inwardly. In addition, the program has had an enormous impact on the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) system. This credit system is now pretty much standard within the EU application—maybe beyond— and it began as the result of an innovative project funded by Erasmus several years ago. These three things—the extent of individual impact, the systemic influence, and the potential for innovative ideas—were most certainly not on the minds of those involved in 1987.
Also, 1987 was another planet—literally another century. A six-month program had a greater impact on somebody’s life than it would today. That’s why it was even more important to make sure that we don’t focus only on a few mobile students, even a few thousand or 100 thousand mobile students, but also on what the program can do for institutions. To give an example, with Erasmus+, we have tried to place a stronger emphasis on the fact that mobility isn’t an end in itself, but a means—a means for internationalization and so on. Therefore, the charter that Erasmus institutions must sign to benefit from the program is now less of a declaration of intentions and more of a statement as to how mobility is going to be part of the strategy of the institution.
Grosh: The Erasmus and Erasmus+ models have clearly been successful for Europe. Do you think other regions would benefit from these models?
Prats Monné: Yes. The Erasmus model is quite flexible. To give an example, each country can decide if it wants to give fewer grants of higher amount to fewer students— to cover more of the needs of each student— or more grants of a smaller amount to reach more people. There are important differences between countries. For example, if you are a student from Cyprus, it would be logical for you to get a higher grant, because you have to travel farther than somebody from Belgium.
But I also think the underlying idea, which is that mobility should be encouraged—you don’t need to have a full system of grounds covering everything. You need just an incentive, which students can add to their personal funding capacity. In addition, the increased movement of students and staff impacts education systems themselves. I think that this is a pretty sensible approach everywhere—not least because internationalization covers all education systems all over the world. It is not just Europe that wants to bring countries closer together; university systems everywhere would benefit from fewer barriers among them.
Grosh: What is the future of European exchange?
Prats Monné: The overall EU budget for the 2014–2020 period shows zero increase. And yet, within this budget, the Erasmus program budget increased by 40 percent. This gives a sense that there is a real commitment. Of course Erasmus is 14.7 billion Euros over seven years, which is only about 2 percent of the overall EU budget, and it covers not only higher education but also school education and vocational training. So you can make this increase without an enormous sacrifice to other parts of the budget. But still, 40 percent is a big increase, yet I would be astonished if the European Union didn’t make a similar effort during the next round—not just because of the intrinsic importance of higher education and human capital development, but also because mobility is perhaps the most indisputable contribution that European integration has provided to even the most Euro-skeptic citizens and governments. The debate for more or less integration is particularly harsh in the United Kingdom, yet very few in that country dispute the benefits of student mobility in Europe.
Here is another example. The European Union was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 2012. As you can imagine, the many institutions at the European Union deliberated at length about who would pick up the prize. And they also discussed how to show that the European Union deserves that prize. In the end, it was decided that three EU institutions should be there: the European Commission, Parliament and Council. The answer to the second question about EU merit was to organize a discussion with Erasmus students in Oslo, Norway. The decision to focus on these students on the occasion of the Nobel Prize award is telling. Ask a citizen, a politician, or even a policy maker like me: How do you justify European integration, how is it good for citizens? We can have many sophisticated policy and economic arguments, but the real, simple, clearcut answer is that it promotes the mobility of people and exchanges—particularly exchanges of students and staff at universities. I have very little doubt that, whatever the future holds for European integration, the mobility of students and Erasmus will remain a priority.
This interview is published in full in the fall 2015 edition of IIENetworker magazine.