The European Commission (EC) has contradicted the announcement made on Monday by Spain’s Education Ministry that the country would be losing out on funds from Brussels next year for the Erasmus exchange program. The education minister, José Ignacio Wert, said that the number of students eligible for grants could fall from the current level of 40,000 by around half during the next academic year.
However, the EC said the very next day that the funds to be destined to Spain next year for the Erasmus program would actually rise by 4.3 percent, reaching 53.4 million euros. What’s more, according to the EC spokesperson for education, Dennis Abbott, the funds destined to Erasmus are actually forecast to rise by 60 percent up to 2020, and that the Spanish government is perfectly aware of these plans. Should the number of people eligible for the grants fall, he added, it will have been down to a decision made by the state.
“The statement by the Spanish minister suggesting that the Erasmus budget would be cut and that the number of Erasmus students in Spain would be reduced by half due to new EU funding criteria is completely wrong,” said Abbott during a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday morning.
He went on to explain that there are new budget allocations due to the new Erasmus + program, which are principally based on the population levels of each participating country, but he clarified that it is designed to be “clearer and fairer,” providing more support for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Spain not only did not oppose the new system, but also voted in favor, Abbott explained. Speaking in some of the strongest terms seen in Brussels regarding Spanish policy, the spokesman even went so far as to describe the Spanish Education Ministry’s announcement as “rubbish.”
Wert had said on Monday that the new budget allocation was going to be damaging for Spain’s Erasmus program, given that until now the number of university students was taken into account when calculating the amount to be handed over by the EC, and that the country has a very high number of students in higher education (1.5 million students during the last academic year). As such, the statement sent out by the ministry stated that Spain had opposed the change in the criteria, something that has now been roundly denied by Brussels.
In fact, according to Abbott, Spain will do well from the new budget allocation. “Although it’s the country with the fifth-largest population in the EU, in 2014 it will receive the fourth-highest total budget share under Erasmus plus, nearly 124 million euros,” he explained. “It will also receive the third-highest budget share regarding higher education mobility, just over 53 million euros.” This is due to the fact that as well as the population, the performance of past Spanish Erasmus students is taken into account when calculating the funds to be granted.
Wert has been caught up in controversy regarding Erasmus since last week, when he was forced into a U-turn over the ministry’s decision to cut the state’s portion of Erasmus grants for all but the most needy students, despite the fact that the academic year is underway and that most students are already in place in their host countries.
Erasmus students – who spend part or whole of the academic year studying in another European country -- receive grants from the EU, the central government, and in some cases, their regional governments.
The government’s share of this grant has fallen more than 70 percent in recent years, falling from 62.7 million euros to 16 million euros this year. After last week’s U-turn, this year’s Erasmus students will receive 100 euros a month from the central government (185 euros for disadvantaged students). The EC’s contribution to the grants for Spanish students this year will be 115 euros a month.
The co-financing model has meant that in the past Spain has been able to send the highest number of students abroad on the Erasmus program, compared to other participating countries (40,500 during the 2012-13 academic year).
“I don’t know where this idea came from that somehow because we have a broader program Erasmus students will fall,” said Abbott on Tuesday. “The only possible explanation for that is if the Spanish authorities decide to reduce their own contribution, which is in addition to their own grant, then it’s possible the number will fall.”
Brussels voiced a note of discord last week when the announcement was made that grants would be cut for Erasmus students this academic year. A spokesperson said last week that the Spanish government’s decision “should have been announced to students before the start of the university year.”
Despite the furor Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy backed Wert, attributing the incident to a "misunderstanding." "The education minister has the full and total support of the prime minister," he said on Tuesday afternoon.