It is the best known of all the European Union’s programmes but not everyone is aware that the Erasmus study exchange extends well beyond Europe’s borders.

Launched in 1987 and initially involving just 11 countries and 3,200 students, the programme has grown to involve 9 million people, according to data from the European Commission. Its objective is to promote mobility, and two of its keystones are the grant that covers some of the student’s expenses and the recognition that a period abroad is an important experience to add to a enhances the student’s CV. Now, 30 years after its inception, Erasmus is considered one of the European Union’s greatest successes and a key tool in forging the common identity on which European citizenship is founded. The Commission’s research has shown, in fact, that the percentage of students that feel a strong connection with Europe following an Erasmus exchange is particularly high, especially in the southern and eastern countries (85%), with Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria respectively at 87%, 89% and 90%.

Since 2007 the programme has been extended beyond the borders of the EU. In 2009 Erasmus Mundus was established, and in 2014 the programme transformed into Erasmus+, incorporating all of the exchange initiatives, including teaching, professional training, voluntary work, cooperation and the strengthening of academic institutions. Priority status has been reserved for Europe’s neighbours – the Balkans, Russia, the former Soviet states and those to the south of the Mediterranean – with which Europe aims to establish stable relationships sustained by open societies. With Erasmus+, however, it is possible to travel to an increasing number of countries.

The latest enlargement occurred this year with Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange, the virtual version of the programme that aims to employ technology to open up new opportunities for exchange and intercultural dialogue. The pilot phase is aimed in particular at the southern shores of the Mediterranean: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia. And the choice of these countries is by no means casual. One of the objectives of the virtual version is, in fact, “to develop resistance to discrimination and indoctrination”.

Announcing the virtual version, the European Commission reiterated the call by education ministers in March 2015 following the Paris terrorist attacks to “promote citizenship and the shared values of liberty, tolerance and non discrimination through education”.

In this sense the Erasmus+ programme is a model of success. A study of its impact based on a sample of over 70,000 students demonstrated that the personality development resulting from six months of Erasmus was equivalent to that normally occurring over four years of regular life. Tolerance, curiosity, confidence, serenity, determination and vigour emerged as the traits developed by this type of experience: all qualities sought by employers. On a professional level, Erasmus students have a greater likelihood of reaching top management positions and a lower probability of experiencing long-term unemployment, a particularly hot issue for countries in the Mediterranean area.

Then there are the geopolitical considerations. In 2011, during the Arab Spring demonstrations against the regimes in North Africa, the European Commission increased the number of Erasmus+ scholarships “to support young people, students and university staff in the southern Mediterranean in their role in democratising the region.”

“The Neighbourhood Policy, which concerns the countries to the east and south of the EU, has fostered exchanges in the Mediterranean area. But this has now become one of the priority regions due to political motives concerning the issue of migration”, said Marcello Scalisi, director of the Mediterranean Universities Union (UNIMED).

Initial data from the Erasmus+ programme notes 22,000 exchanges (from and to Europe) during the period 2015–2017. But the distribution is not equal: over 6,200 involve Israel, followed by Morocco (3,929), Tunisia (3,104), Egypt (2,348), while Syria (207) and Libya (64) are at the bottom of the list.

There are many problems too. Firstly, students from countries with the greater need for international opportunities are those that have the least access to them. Scalisi explained that since 2014 it is not the large academic consortiums that manage the scholarships but individual European universities. “That means that if a country in the region has more contacts and is more capable of obtaining scholarships though European partners, it will receive more funding”, he continued.

Then there’s the question of security, both for the European participants and for the students from the region, who are increasingly alarmed by the rise in racism in Europe. Moreover, depending on the university system, there can be structural and qualitative weaknesses. Finally, there is the problem of visas, which are already hard to come by in Europe for those from the southern Mediterranean area. On the other hand, said Scalisi, the virtual programme can help comprehend how other societies function and prepare for mobility, but it is no substitute for the real thing.

For this precise reason, the UNIMED association, which includes 108 universities in 23 countries, launched a petition in December to ask the European Union to increase the number of scholarships for Euro-Mediterranean exchanges in the period 2021–2027 from 8,000 to 30,0000. This expansion aims to resolve two major shortcomings in the current programmes: the integration of young refugees and the mobility not only within Europe but also between countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

In Europe there is talk of an Erasmus generation but the idea of a similar concept for the Mediterranean area is still a distant goal. “A Mediterranean region does not exist on an academic level. The universities in Egypt and Morocco have more contact with universities in Europe than with each other,” Scalisi said. “The Erasmus+ programme was created, and remains, Eurocentric and it was conceived based on a political and institutional framework represented by the European Union. Of course, there is a strong demand for mobility in the region. However, it is necessary to hand over the reins to the southern shore, creating regional mobility financed by the respective governments and to which Europe could provide technical assistance”.

Erasmus continues to evolve. Launched in a European community that was still small and separated by the Iron Curtain, it enlarged after the fall of the Berlin Wall in order to encourage the transition to a market economy in the neighbouring countries. With globalization it opened up to the rest of the world in the new millennium and now it aims to tackle big question such as migration and the global hunt for talent to keep Europe competitive. Its balance has never known an economic crisis. The budget for the period 2014–2020 was 14.7 billion euros, benefitting approximately 3.3 million young people. And the European Commission has proposed doubling the sum for the 2021–2027 EU budget currently under discussion in Brussels, in spite of the cuts that are sure to be on the way due to the withdrawal from the EU of a major contributor: the United Kingdom. In this case too Erasmus offers a practical demonstration that although some might want to build walls, culture and education in Europe continue to be open.

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