Relaunching Europe through learning: COVID-19 and the Erasmus+ programme

24 April 2020
Relaunching Europe through learning: COVID-19 and the Erasmus+ programme

The COVID-19 has paralysed Europe, both literally and figuratively speaking. The pandemic has impacted every stratum of our society and challenged the way we live, interact, work and learn. What is more, it has invariably stunned mobility, through lockdown measures, border closures as well as bans on travelling and all forms of gatherings. Being on the front line, local and regional elected representatives have taken hard, but necessary measures to contain the virus and prevent its spread. Schools and universities were amongst the first to be impacted by such measures and it is difficult to foresee when they will be able to go back to normal. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Erasmus+ programme – given that learner and teacher mobility are at the heart of its rationale – is hugely impacted by the outbreak.


Erasmus+ caught in the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting ongoing and future activities of the programme, with varying degrees of disruption for the 165,000 people across Europe currently on an Erasmus+ exchange. Some students are experiencing complications travelling back home. Others are having difficulties planning ahead, given that they do not know how the programme will be delivered. Likewise, many learning institutions (including Erasmus+ National Agencies) are confronted with significant financial, educational and organisational challenges.

The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) has recently released a research report on this topic, based on a survey held last month with the participation of around 22,000 international students and trainees enlisted on the programme. It is worth noting that 37.5% of the participants reported having experienced at least one major problem related to their exchange, ranging from the loss of transportation to return home to access to basic needs. Some students are also experiencing discrimination based on their nationality and related to the COVID-19 outbreak (24% of Italians and 19% of Asians). Overall, 42% of participants in the survey stayed in their host country, 40% returned home, 4% are unable to return, 8% unable to start the exchange and 5% are undecided on what to do next.

In order to answer these questions and ease certain worries, the European Commission has issued  a Q&A online and has published a COVID-19 factsheet, which gives essential practical advice to Erasmus+ participants and learning institutions. Some precautionary measures related to the impact of the coronavirus were already taken, such as postponing deadlines for new applications and planned activities and rescheduling ongoing Erasmus+ partnership projects. Additionally, Erasmus+ National Agencies are also allowed to invoke force majeur clauses, in order to cover possible additional costs of mobile students and staff.


The road to convalescence

During these challenging times, one must not forget the incredible benefits of the Erasmus+ programme for students, teachers, researchers and learning institutions for over three decades. Up until now, the programme has been a huge success story. According to the European Commission, more than 10 million young Europeans have participated in the programme since its foundation in 1987. Its most tangible advantage is its positive effect on the acquisition of skills and competences, which increases employability and entrepreneurship and shortens the transition from education to employment. Erasmus+ also fosters transnational and cross-border cooperation, having a positive impact upon the development of regions and cities.

It goes without saying that, against the backdrop of the current crisis, all Erasmus+ students should receive the necessary funds to cover the costs they have incurred. Recently, the members of the Culture and Education Committee in the European Parliament addressed a letter to Mariya Gabriel, Member of the European Commission in charge of Education, asking for more support for students and reiterating that rules should be applied more flexibly to them. The letter also suggests that EU volunteers of the European Solidarity Corps - the EU initiative giving young people the opportunity to volunteer or work in projects that benefit communities and people around Europe - could help Member States to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

It is also imperative to ensure equal access to online courses and learning tools within the framework of Erasmus+ and beyond. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed striking digital inequalities and the urgent need for modernisation of some educational systems and establishments. Finally, if the situation persists, interaction among students should be encouraged in order to keep the social variant of the programme alive.

At the same time, it is important to stimulate transnational and cross-sectoral collaboration between universities, national authorities and students in order to ensure that equity, diversity and inclusive actions are part of the recovery plans drafted by the institutions. In this regard, students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be able to benefit from the programme.

For a long-lasting recovery

 The budget for the Erasmus+ programme under the current multiannual financial framework 2014-2020 is €14.7 billion. Two thirds of the budget are destined to learning opportunities abroad for individuals, and the rest for partnerships and reforms of the education and youth sectors. The European Commission has proposed to increase the Erasmus+ budget to €30 billion in the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF, in order to “make the programme even more inclusive”.

Last February, representatives of our PES political family expressed their strong support for the promotion and the strengthening of the Erasmus+ programme and its “aim of stimulating European-wide learning”. In the same month, the Commission in charge of Education (SEDEC) in the European Committee of the Regions, chaired by Anne Karjalainen, local councillor from Kerava (PES/Finland), specified in its SEDEC 2020 work programme that the Erasmus+ budget should be “commensurate to the aspiration of tripling participation”.

Given that it strengthens European identity, multiculturalism and cohesion, the programme is an enhancer of European integration and as such, it will be an essential tool to forge European cooperation and to weld the fragmented pieces together after the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, the EU and its Member States should support the increase of the Erasmus+ programme so that it does not become a collateral victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, the post-pandemic era should mark a green turning for Erasmus+, as part of the efforts to successfully implement the European Green Deal. As one of the most renowned European programmes, it should lead by example by becoming more climate-friendly. Erasmus means mobility, and with an estimated number of 12 million participants between 2021 and 2027, the programme’s environmental impact is sizeable. Therefore, concrete mitigating measures should be introduced, promoting green mobility and providing financial incentives to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly means of transport. A green Erasmus+ can have a real impact on participants, but also raise awareness among the wider public and change mindsets.

Erasmus+ will remain a key tool for restoring faith in European values after a crisis that has exacerbated national egoisms and erected barriers, literally and metaphorically, among EU Member States. In the wake of COVID-19, continuing to invest in human capital will be vital to overcome the multiple challenges. Through learning, it is possible to relaunch the European recovery project.