Ministry pulls plug on student-mobility university grants

Séneca scheme pulled to save less than seven million euros per year Government says it is focusing on scholarships for poor

Twenty-nine-year-old Carolina Jara had everything ready to apply for her Séneca grant. Her plan was to use the scheme -- which allows students to move to Spanish college campuses away from their home towns -- to finish the studies in sports sciences that she had begun at the Miguel Hernández University in Elche, Alicante province. She was hoping to head to the University of Lleida, close to the Pyrenees, so she could specialize in extreme sports and mountain activities.

Now, however, the Education Ministry has announced it will not offer the grants next academic year, due to a lack of funds.

"It was my motivation for four years," she says. "I have been struggling to get good grades and, suddenly, this. I still can't believe it."

According to a statement released late on Monday, the ministry says it has decided to give priority to general grants -- those awarded to students from low-income families who attain the required academic level, which will in fact be set higher from this year on.

It was my motivation for four years. I still can't believe it"

The department says that all the money in the 2013 budget earmarked for the Séneca program (6.67 million euros) is to go toward paying for this year's grants: currently 2,050 participating students receive 500 euros a month as part of the scheme, and have already received between 120 and 200 euros in travel expenses. Normally, a year's worth of funds is enough to cover two terms of one academic year and one term of the following year. The ministry says it will be prepared to revise the decision "once the economic situation has improved."

Created 13 years ago, the Séneca scheme is similar to the EU's Erasmus exchange program - which allows European students to spend part of their university career in another country - but operating solely within Spain. It is a competitive program, with grants awarded to applicants with the best grades (income is not taken into account).

That's why Carolina has been studying so hard. Without the grant, it will be virtually impossible for her to afford to complete her studies in Lleida. "I'll have to look for a job, though that is very difficult right now," she points out.

Victoria Vivancos, secretary of the student issues committee of the Spanish University Rectors Conference (CRUE), says that the issue is not about covering any specific need, but about deciding to stop the program in the general context of the cuts. Last Thursday, she attended a meeting with the ministry where the CRUE put forward the idea of continuing the scheme next year in a "symbolic form, with just one or two grants per university."

"The possibilities of achieving that are remote," was the ministry's response.

The Education Ministry has also cut its funding for the Erasmus program -- to which the EU and other member countries also contribute -- by almost 75 percent this year, compared with 2011, to reach 15.2 million euros.

"We find the huge cuts the government is making to these grants embarrassing," says Fernando Galán, a board member of the European Students Union. "With the cuts already made to Erasmus grants, they are closing the doors on movement both in Spain and Europe."

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