As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus+ programme, Dr Hywel Ceri Jones tells us about his experience in the European Commission developing European Educational cooperation, including the Erasmus programme. The original Erasmus programme began as an exchange programme for higher education students which has grown and developed into the Erasmus+ programme as we know it today.
"In 1973 Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). The retiring Commissioner, Altiero Spinelli, had the vision that a strong educational and cultural dimension was vital to the construction of an open and democratic Europe. Following his initiative, the European Commission set up its first Education and Youth department, even though education had not been a priority on the political agenda at that time as the word 'education' did not appear in the founding Treaty of Rome.
The initial political breakthrough was made in 1976 when European Ministers of Education agreed to kick-start an education action programme which crucially included the seed of what grew into the Erasmus scheme. I had proposed the idea of developing programmes of joint study between universities as a result of my personal experience at the University of Sussex which had broken new ground by providing organised opportunities for all its students, whatever their discipline, to pursue a year abroad as necessary and integral to their degree. I was persuaded that such an idea could also be encouraged on the European stage.
Happily, the Ministers of Education agreed, and it took 10 years to demonstrate that the initial pilot scheme could work, engaging universities across Europe and establishing the necessary legal and financial basis for the European Union (EU) to develop educational collaboration and run the Erasmus programme. Through the explosion of enthusiastic support and effective lobbying of Prime Ministers at the London European Summit, the Erasmus scheme (and its ‘catchy’ title!) was officially approved in 1987 with a huge quantum leap in the EU budget allocated to it.
The basic architecture of the programme has remained fundamentally the same ever since its launch, though Erasmus+ now also incorporates elements of the other European programmes we had launched, notably Comett and Lingua. Three features have been critically important to the sustainable impact and quality of the programme and its impressive reputation internationally:
- The decision to open up the programme to students of all disciplines was perhaps the most significant innovation. Labour market opportunities needed graduates in all fields with the capacity to work across the cultures through the medium of at least two and preferably three languages.
- The initiative was placed firmly in the hands of universities themselves to seek and develop transnational partnerships. The programme was deliberately conceived to trigger initiatives from universities and other higher education institutions, on a voluntary and decentralised basis, and not through the machinery of national authorities.
- University authorities were expected to give assurance that periods of study spent abroad would be recognised as a necessary and integral part of the student’s final qualification, explicitly presented as such in the award of the final degree. Thus, employers could see the added value of such European experience on the student’s CV. This precondition now forms part of the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education.
Many universities across Europe set up their own Erasmus offices to assist in institutionalising their partnership agreements. This was vital to securing the negotiation of transnational arrangements regarding the financing of such interchanges, including the waiving of tuition fees, complemented by the Commission’s top-up grants to contribute to students’ travel and subsistence. The decision from the outset to provide grants to academic and administrative staff to help them reconnoitre possible partners made all the difference to the programme. It has been key to the quality control of the programme.
By 2020 Erasmus+ will have involved more than 5.5 million students, connecting universities and higher education institutions across the globe with its quality Erasmus brand widely recognised. My birthday wish is that the UK will give high priority to securing its continuing full engagement with it."