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Thirty Years of ERASMUS by Dr Hywel Ceri Jones

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Hywel Ceri Jones

This speech was given on the anniversary of Erasmus at an event at Cardiff Metropolitan University marking 20 years of the programme.

Thank you Vice Chancellor for your invitation to participate in this celebration of the 30th birthday of the Erasmus Programme.  We can this evening also celebrate the success story of Cardiff Met’s participation in ERASMUS and its achievements in developing its  strategic commitment to internationalisation as a central feature of the University’s mission.

I would like to pay tribute to the drive and determination of Professor Loutfi and the international team here in assisting the university to orchestrate its projects of inter-university cooperation and student mobility across the globe.  Long may this continue.

By 2020 the ERASMUS + programme will have involved over 9 million in all – students, apprentices, youth volunteers and staff.  It has engaged virtually all European higher education and, through its Erasmus Mundus component, it connects universities across the globe with its quality Erasmus brand widely recognised throughout the world.  “Doing an Erasmus” has become a tried and trusted way for young students to enhance their knowledge and skills, and thereby their employability and career prospects.   

As a founder of the programme of European educational cooperation, it is a special personal pleasure to be at home in Wales for this celebration.  The stories from ERASMUS Alumni all over the world confirm the extent to which it has provided an important transformative, life-enhancing dimension to their lives and careers.  One happy unintended consequence of the programme is that there are now apparently more than 1 million Erasmus babies in the world.

Let me start with some essential history.  The European Summit of Heads of State in Paris in 1972 marked a major shift of political attitude towards the future of the then European Economic Community (EEC) to emphasise “its human face”, and pay attention to “non material values”.  The Paris Declaration gave rise to the beginning of environmental policy, a new thrust in favour of cooperation with the Third World, and (importantly for Wales) the launch of a European regional development policy and fund.  This was the political context when, together with Ireland and Denmark, the UK decided to join in 1973 as new Member States.  We were joining the Community, not simply its common market and commercial arrangements, as some have falsely argued, re-writing history to fit their ideology. This was the time when the Commission decided to commence work in the field of education policy and to establish a new department for education and youth policy .This decision was inspired by Commissioner Altiero Spinelli who had the vision to argue that a strong educational and cultural dimension was vital to building an open and democratic Europe, dedicated to promote peace and reconciliation in Europe.

I moved from Sussex University to Brussels in 1973 to serve as the Commission’s first Head of this new department for Education and Youth policy, with responsibility to make proposals for educational cooperation across Europe.

The important challenge at that time was to give the political assurance that engaging in education at European level would not lead to harmonisation of the educational systems, and that the European Commission would not seek to promote binding legislation on the Member States, the method of operation which typified its approach in fields such as agricultural policy and the customs union, and which required common European rules for their effective operation.

The word “education” had not featured as such in the original founding Treaty of Rome.  It had been more or less taboo on the European political agenda, as France notably was concerned that action in this field might impinge on the very heartland of its idea of national sovereignty.  Germany too was especially sensitive about the implications for its devolved federal system of Landers.

The choice of Professor Ralf Dahrendorf as Commissioner with the portfolio for education, science and research proved inspiring.  His charismatic presence and internationally acclaimed academic credibility were important factors in securing the first political breakthrough in the Commission’s negotiations with European Ministers of Education. These led in February 1976 to the launch of the first European education cooperation programme.

The original concept of the Erasmus programme, as we know it today, dates back directly to this first cooperation programme when European Education Ministers decided, as one of their priorities, “to promote joint courses of study between universities and higher education institutions”.  I had proposed the idea of developing such joint study programmes, as a result of my personal experience when working previously at Sussex University (the first of the 7 new universities set up in the UK in the 1960s). Its School of European Studies had broken new ground in the UK by providing organised opportunities for all its students, whatever their major discipline – not only linguists – to pursue a year abroad as an integral and recognised part of their degree programme.  I was convinced that such an idea could be developed on the European wide basis.

At that time 0.5% only of the European Community’s student population came from another Member State. Other than the foreign language teaching assistantship schemes  which only operated between France, Germany and the UK on a bi-lateral basis, there was very little interchange involving other European countries and certainly not involving areas of the curriculum other than foreign language teaching.

The Commission worked over a period of 10 years from 1976 to 1986 to demonstrate that the scheme could work in practice, despite the diversity of our national systems for academic recognition and student financing.   This initial 10 year period of development was a necessary phase of experimentation and confidence building.   The design of the ERASMUS programme has in fact remained fundamentally the same to this day in respect of its focus on universities and higher education, although the + in its present title now indicates the greater breadth of its present  coverage.

The organised mobility of students was and continues to be the idea which caught the wider popular imagination, but the key to the continuing long-term success of the programme lies in its basic architecture. It is often still described incorrectly as an exchange programme, missing the central point of the programme’s importance to the long term mission of universities which seek to embed a strategy of internationalisation though partnerships in their teaching programmes.  Let me highlight three features which have been important to the sustainable impact and quality of the programme over the years.

Firstly, the decision to open up Erasmus to students of all disciplines.  With the perspective of the internal market and accelerating globalisation, future labour market opportunities required graduates in all fields, not only law, economics and business studies, with the capacity to work across the cultures through the medium of at least two and preferably three languages. In the early days, combinations of business studies with foreign languages proved to be the most popular, then law, engineering, manufacturing and construction, all experienced strong take-up together with the humanities, social sciences, and the arts.  

A deliberate decision was made to focus the initial priority on undergraduates.  This was considered the best way to build up rapidly the student numbers involved, to engage networks of universities across Europe, and to ensure the necessary curricular and assessment arrangements to safeguard and enrich the quality of teaching and study programmes abroad, thereby also enhancing the reputation of universities.

Secondly, the programme was conceived from the outset to promote initiatives on an entirely voluntary and decentralised basis.  Then as now, the power of initiative has been firmly in the hands of universities themselves to seek and develop their partnerships abroad. With their own degree-awarding powers in most European countries, universities were to be the initiators and drivers of the process.  This decentralised approach was widely welcomed by universities and contributed to triggering a snowball effect to expand the numbers of universities involved, as well as securing an enthusiastic response from students across the continent.

The institutional commitment of university authorities was seen as a sine qua non to secure a lasting long-term effect, and embed the capacity to mount such European joint degrees or joint ventures with necessary academic quality control.   University authorities were expected to give the assurance that the period of study spent abroad by a student would be fully recognised as a necessary and integral part of the student’s final qualification, and explicitly presented as such in the final degree or certificate, visible to future employers.  This precondition became a key component of the Erasmus Charter which participating universities sign when committing to participation in the programme.

This decentralised approach led most universities to set up their own Erasmus or European offices to assist them in institutionalising their partnership agreements, and has provided the basis for deeper internationalisation, as exemplified here at Cardiff Met.   The enthusiastic engagement of European universities provided important evidence to back up the vital decision which the Commission also negotiated to underpin the Erasmus programme through reciprocal cross-national arrangements, including the waiving of tuition fees and admissions quotas, the networking of the different academic recognition centres, and the provision of Commission top-up (complementary) grants to participating students towards their travel and subsistence to complement the different national systems of student support.

The third decision that influenced the quality of the programme was to award grants to academic and administrative staffs to help them reconnoitre possible partners abroad, plan jointly with them to prepare the necessary quality conditions governing the period spent abroad, including joint assessment of the degree programmes.  Thousands of staff have been involved and their engagement has helped build mutual trust and professional friendships across national frontiers, enhancing mutual understanding of the different national systems and structures of curricula and degrees, as well as generating widespread confidence in the value of collaboration through ERASMUS.

Thanks to the explosion of enthusiastic support and effective lobbying by university presidents and students of Prime Ministers and Presidents, including the reluctant Mrs Thatcher, the programme was officially approved by the Council and launched in 1987.  With its historic symbolism and immediate appeal, the official title ERASMUS has worked perfectly as an acronym for  European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students.  The programme consequently made a huge quantum leap at that point in the size of the EU budget allocated to it and the numbers involved. This expansion opened the door wide for study abroad opportunities to be available to many more and not limited to the few fortunate ones.

The political discussions leading to the decision to launch the ERASMUS programme were greatly influenced by the parallel decisions to create the EU’s internal market. The linkage of the idea of free circulation of students and researchers to the central importance attached by the EU to its internal market and the principles of free movement will be important to understand, as the UK seeks to negotiate its future relationship with the EU and, I hope, continued participation in both the ERASMUS and HORIZON programmes.

The target date of 1992 had been set by the EU to secure what has become the largest single market in the world, founded on the idea of “the four freedoms” – freedom to move goods, services, capital and people. The idea which gained widespread support was to help ensure that future professionals in all fields and walks of life would be able to act as multipliers of further European cooperation and contribute to a long-term process of building stronger foundations of inter-cultural understanding.  In this way too, it was hoped to encourage a new form of professionalism gained through experience of working and studying in another country, and by the acquisition of at least one foreign language – the kind of professionalism which would know best how to exploit the opportunities of the Single Market.  

The thorny question of mutual recognition of both academic and professional qualifications between Member States became a matter of growing policy concern, especially among professionals seeking to work and live abroad.  This was especially important for young people eager to exploit the opportunities opening up because of the internal market, notably for teachers and trainers.  The rapidly increasing numbers of business mergers and joint ventures of all kinds across the EU brought in their train new patterns of voluntary mobility, especially for the highly skilled and qualified.  Many firms gave a new European profile to their recruitment policies which in turn influenced the content of curricula at all levels, as the education systems sought to provide for these new needs.

Under the impetus of the 1992 deadline, the key breakthrough was achieved in December 1988 with the adoption by the Council of Ministers of a new general system of mutual recognition of professional qualifications obtained after three or more years of higher education studies. This was based on the principle of mutual trust in the quality of the outputs of each national system.  The new legislation affected well over one hundred different professions, complementing the legal provisions which already existed in respect, for example, of medical and paramedical professions and architects.  It proved to be an important milestone, catching the imagination everywhere of students, educationists and professionals, fuelling efforts to make similar progress in the recognition and comparability of lower level vocational and technical qualifications – an even more complex and diversified area but one affecting millions of present and future workers.

Qualifications were but the tip of the iceberg.  Beneath the surface, concern grew about other barriers to movement which the educational systems were being called upon to address, most especially the need to help remove stereotyped conceptions and prejudices about other countries and other peoples.  Jack Smith, General Motors’ international boss, summed up the problem on a global scale in an apocryphal tale he told at a Stockholm motor show.

“Students at an international school were studying the automobile business.  The Americans wrote a paper on the world’s biggest and best cars.  The English concentrated on the motor and the glory of the British Empire.  The French topic was love and the automobile, and the Italians never quite agreed on what their subject should be.  The German devoted 12 volumes to the theory of the automobile, and the Swedes did a thesis on how to make cars for joy and fulfilment.  Finally, the Japanese students came up with a strategic plan for 100% market share.”

Since 1987, the trio of programmes – ERASMUS, COMETT (University – Industry Collaboration) and LINGUA placed inter-university and higher education cooperation in Europe on a much larger scale than any previous international venture.  Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this pattern of educational cooperation was given further impetus by the dramatic pace of political changes in Central and Eastern Europe after years under the Communist yoke.   This led to the EU decision to launch, from the academic year 1990/91, the TEMPUS scheme, modelled on ERASMUS and COMETT, tailored to respond to the reform needs of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, adapting and opening up their higher education systems through cooperation with Western European institutions and other countries of the so-called G24.

The progressive expansion and appeal of ERASMUS was given further momentum in 2004 when the Commission launched its first joint ERASMUS MUNDUS programmes at Masters level. These joint Masters had to be proposed by a consortium of higher education institutions from at least 3 different countries, with each programme awarding EU funded scholarships to the best students who would then study in at least 2 of the institutions involved, with students moving around on their “mobility track” during the course. By now over 500 Masters programmes have been supported with the award of well over 20,000 student scholarships.

The opening of these joint Masters attracted cooperation all over the world, with 80 countries now involved, including partners from India, China, Brazil, Russia and the USA.  The worldwide scope of ERASMUS was further enhanced by the special effort opened up by its special International Credit Mobility Initiative, which involves non EU partners around the world, funding short term mobility of students, researchers and staff to and from Europe.  The students involved gain credits recognised at the sending institution as part of their degree.  Projects initiated from the UK involve Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa and the USA.  Participation in this Initiative is another success story for Cardiff Met.

Education and training moved progressively up the European political agenda.  This reflected growing Europe-wide concern, consistently backed by the European Parliament, for the EU to invest in people, their skills, their creativity and versatility as a powerful force for economic and social development.  

The ERASMUS+ and HORIZON 2020 Programmes became centrepieces of the EU’s 2014-2020 overall strategy.  Together, they have enriched and strengthened the long term missions and performance of universities and other higher education institutions throughout Europe. (Wales also continues to benefit from HORIZON 2020 to improve the quantity and quality of its stock of researchers in Wales, especially enriching our own Ser Cymru Programme).

Since 2014, ERASMUS + was developed as a programmatic framework – building from its original inter-university base.   The + sign indicates that it now provides ERASMUS opportunities to those working and studying in the initial vocational and further education fields, previously much less involved in  international collaboration.  I am delighted by the success of Colegau Cymru this year in securing a large collaborative project which fits well into efforts to raise the status and quality of vocational education in Wales. This complements the scaling up of apprenticeships in Wales through the combined use of ERASMUS+ and the European Social Fund (ESF).  This year too we witnessed a successful new burst of applications from schools in Wales to take up ERASMUS+ opportunities and reinforce the European and international dimension of their curricula.  Precisely what is needed in our Welsh schools, fit for the 21st century and promoting a sense of global citizenship.

The breadth and depth of the ERASMUS+ programme is not widely appreciated.   It is often still presented inaccurately as a university scheme only.  It is vital for the Welsh Government to appreciate these extra dimensions of ERASMUS+ which provide new levers to improve our education and training provisions in Wales.  There is still a risk that the UK will fail to realise fully the formidable challenge of replacing all the policies and programmes embraced under ERASMUS+, if we were to exit from them.

Last Monday, the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU commenced.  We are still no clearer on the comprehensive set of proposals in the UK’s negotiating stance.  Last week I was pleased to see the strong position taken by Universities UK expressing their concern to protect and promote the role and contribution of universities as magnets for international talent, open and welcoming to international staff and students. We all need to add our voices in support of the contribution of universities, higher and further education in Wales and the strategic value of developing their capacity for stronger internationalisation.  This is vital, economically, socially and culturally.   Acting as key hubs of development, linking with regional and private sector partners, they are in a strong position to contribute to dynamic and inclusive growth in Wales exploiting their networks of world-wide collaboration.

As the UK defines its negotiating stance, I believe equal weight should be given to UK wide insistence on continuing to enjoy full participation in both ERASMUS+ and HORIZON 2020 for the future.  These two programmes dovetail perfectly with our long term strategic interests, both as universities and for Wales as a whole.  They hook us into a range of global partnerships which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate by new bilateral efforts if we had to replace the multilateral framework of partnerships painstakingly and successfully built up over the last 40 years.  It would clearly be to our great disadvantage if we were to fail to continue  in this shared EU wide diplomatic and economic investment in ‘soft power’ which pays off over the long term with many diplomatic, economic and cultural advantages flowing from the friendships, knowledge and experience gained from the time spent by Alumni in the UK.

The greater priority voiced by some university leaders to the promotion of outward mobility of UK students risks downplaying the equally vital importance of inward staff and student mobility which help create the international environment on our campuses which benefits all staff and students, whether mobile or not. Although recommending continuation in ERASMUS, the Welsh Government has to date also taken this limited approach, and has not yet underlined the significance of the vocational education and youth strands of Erasmus which we also urgently need to prioritise for Wales.

Two weeks ago, this ERASMUS birthday was celebrated at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.  This occasion prompted discussion of the future prospects for EU investment in education and research programmes.  The great popularity of ERASMUS and its iconic symbolism were warmly applauded.  Testimonies from many ERASMUS alumni were presented highlighting the added value of the ERASMUS experience to their CVs and their employability, appreciated by employers world wide.   Research  indicated that mobile university students are twice as likely to have found a job one year after graduation compared to their non-mobile counterparts, one in three higher education trainees are offered a position in the company with which they trained abroad and one in 10 trainees go on to create their own company, 92% of European employers are looking for candidates with transversal skills when recruiting, and evidence shows that mobile students acquire better transversal skills having studied abroad.

One of the ideas circulating in Strasbourg was that the EU budget should be multiplied six-fold for ERASMUS+ from 2021-27 to enable it to reach one third of young people in the Union.  Some stakeholders argued too that investment in ERASMUS+ should in future match the increased scale of support from the EU for the next research programme to succeed HORIZON 2020.  Although the future EU budget will not be determined until the outcome of Brexit negotiations is clear, we can look forward to substantial expansion of these EU engines of investment in research and education in support of what I hope will be a reformed EU anti-austerity economic strategy for the future.

This is the moment for the UK, with backing from the devolved Governments, to reaffirm commitment to full and continued engagement in both programmes, anchored in a new cooperation agreement with our European partners which could also embrace security, environmental and cultural questions.  Together with the growing pressures for the UK to secure continued membership of the internal market and protect our economy and our jobs, we could then at last be on a better track for the negotiations.  If this does not succeed, our devolved Governments and Parliament should not agree to the deal.

I am passionately concerned that present and future generations of young people in Wales and the UK are able to continue to enjoy and benefit from an Erasmus experience. Let us now celebrate this 30th anniversary  and work to make that a reality.

Dr Hywel Ceri Jones, founder of ERASMUS