By Yana Brovdiy
European Union might be going through another period of Euro sclerosis and fears for the future, one of its progenies, the Erasmus student exchange programme, remains a great example of what can be achieved through a collective effort.
Erasmus started in 1987 and received its name from a famous Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who lived and worked in various European countries. For a large part of the European history the opportunity to study in another European country was a prerogative of the royals, rich or an intellectual elite. Today anyone, no matter what social class you belong to, can receive Erasmus scholarship and fulfil a dream of studying abroad. However, many people do not know that there was once a high probability that this life changing and a mind broadering programme would not have been started. Some of the founding member states of the EU, such as Germany and France, were not interested in the proposals of the European Commission since they already had bilateral student exchange programmes and did not want to expand the circle. How much convincing and negotiations did it take to get the sceptics on board remains a question for the historians. Few details were recently revealed by the former Head of the DG Education and Culture of the European Commission, whose team drafted the ERASMUS programme. Domenicco Lenarduzzi confirmed that AEGEE (one of Europe’s biggest interdisciplinary student organisations) was crucial in the process and that without this organization ERASMUS would have never been established. With time Erasmus has become an indispensable part of the EU and the attempts to cut the funding in the times of the crisis have been met with a strong resistance from the civil society, former and future Erasmus students all across Europe.
There is not enough space in this short article to list all of the scholars who argue that any entity with an ambition to develop into a well-functioning and a strong Union or organization needs an identity to base itself on. EU is not an exception and talks about the European identity are commonplace not only in all of the EU countries but also beyond the current EU’s borders. In this discussions Erasmus is often mentioned as one of the driving forces behind the Europeanization of the mind and it is probably the most effective tool in the hands of the policy-makers today. Official statistics are indeed impressive. In 2006 80% of the students that benefited from an Erasmus study were the first in their family to have had the possibility to study abroad. Furthermore, all of the years except 1996-1997 there was an increase in size of the participants and last year the number of all the students who ever took part in Erasmus topped 3 million. The numbers alone do not say much about the contribution of this exchange programme to the Europeanization of the students’ identity. However, according to the latest survey of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), a student organisation founded to support and develop student exchange, studies abroad do effect identity of the students. ESN asked mobile students whether they feel more European after their experience abroad, 36% replied that they felt more European and 23% a bit more European after living abroad. 39% said that nothing changed and they do not feel more European. Another important benefit of the studies abroad is that mobile students seem to be more interested in international and European politics than non-mobile and they feel they are more informed about the EU. Finally, according to some studies Erasmus also contributes to the integration of the European labour market as those who have done Erasmus are more likely to work abroad.
Erasmus would not be so successful if it was not directly influencing and changing lives of the students that take part in this programme. Frankly speaking, I have yet to meet a person who would tell me that he/she did not enjoy the international experience. The internet is full with the Erasmus confessions and most people say that it was one of the best grown up choices they have ever made. My friend, Natalia Donets described the time she spent in France as an eye-opening experience that changed her views about university, the things she wanted to study and the place where she wanted to be later in her life. Another friend, Mariana Ursu says that the studies in Denmark have opened a new meaning of life to her. She understood that she can be strong and that she is prepared for any work. Indeed it seems that often former Erasmus students are better prepared for the working life and are more attractive in the eyes of the potential employers compared to those who have never left their home country. Quantitative study of Giorgio Di Pietro shows that those who studied abroad are about 24 percentage points more likely to be in employment 3 years following graduation relative to their non-mobile peers. The expected benefits of Erasmus are not only improvement of language skills, one of the important preconditions for a well-paid job in the globalized world, Erasmus students experience new cultures, learn how to adapt and how to make contacts.
To conclude, EU can be proud of its offspring. Erasmus plays an important role not only in the social, cultural and even linguistic unification of Europe, this programme also offers an opportunity for the young generation of Europeans to learn to appreciate the benefits that international cooperation and communication give them.
In the words of Erasmus alumni, Paulo Daniel Oliveira:
“Understanding between peoples can only come from cultural exchange. The power of the Erasmus exchange programme is humongous! It is a revolution, it is a huge yet discrete revolution taking place in Europe”.
This year youth mobility is one of the main topics of Europe on Track. Follow posts of our Ambassadors and find out more about the new Erasmus+ (2014-2020) and how you can benefit from it.