The bright side of the EU

The Erasmus program, with all its imperfections, has been a great success and is intimately related with the idea of European unity

A European Union program that has been running for 25 years and is generally considered a success must have more going for it than some other programs do. This is the merit of Erasmus. On May 11 at the University of Granada, we celebrated the birth, development and ups and downs of one of the programs that is most highly valued by the European public — one that truly reflects the bright side of the European Union.

It may be useful to remember the circumstances of its birth. In the 1980s what was then known as the European Community was languishing. The end of the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal determined the need for their admission, under two guiding ideas. Firstly, a single market without frontiers: to this end the EU’s Single Act was aimed at the elimination of bureaucratic barriers, and the free circulation of persons and goods. Secondly, the so-called Europe of Citizens was a concerted campaign aimed at bringing home to the public the rationality of European integration. One key objective was to attract young people to the project. We wanted an open-minded younger generation, who could speak languages — cosmopolitan students, with a generous vision of the world.

The Erasmus program was born against the desires of some member states, where education and culture were seen as part and parcel of national identity and sovereignty. In the European Commission we saw that these closed systems, though ultimately untenable, could not be interfered with. However, we could set up a Community-wide program that would come under the Commission’s authority. Many reactions were hostile.

The Presidency of the Council of Ministers, for example, presented a compromise proposal that pared Erasmus down to the bone: no mobility for students, no autonomy for the universities to join the network or not. And above all, no budget. This proposal had to be flatly rejected, until at last the various national education ministries were persuaded to see reason.

I believe that Erasmus, with all its imperfections, has been a great success and is intimately related with the idea of European unity. In 1987 it involved 3,244 students. Now, 25 years later, this figure has risen to 200,000 per year, for a total of some 2.5 million students who have studied in a university of another member state. More than 30,000 Spanish students have taken advantage of it. We are also the principal receptor of Erasmus scholarships from other countries. Yet much remains to be done. We are still looking at rather low absolute figures, especially in the exchange of professors.

The Erasmus program has been attacked as fomenting mere university tourism, tending to partying and low academic performance. I do not agree. I will not claim that Erasmus students are immune to partying — how many students are? Excessive drinking by young people is a general problem that does not depend on the nature of certain scholarships. This criticism is founded on an unfortunate stereotype, even if it is legendary among students — the story of the French film L’auberge espagnole, along with the fact that Spain is the largest recipient of Erasmus scholarships.

One of the fundamental components of Erasmus is a familiarity with life in other countries. You are not wasting your time at university if you are widening your horizons by meeting students of other nations, living in their company, and working with other professors.

It is true that certain aspects of the program merit reconsideration, chiefly the need for higher academic performance. Nor can professors be allowed to trivialize the program with excessive generosity to students who do not deserve it. A more extensive exchange of professors is important in this area.

If it has been decided to cut down the budget for Erasmus scholarships, it’s because there isn’t any money. Better to put it that way, than to justify it in terms of the program’s shortcomings. It’s a matter of not throwing out the bathwater with the baby in it.

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