Erasmus – making the rich richer?

27 years – one million babies. This can be seen as one of the positive balances for the ERASMUS-programme, the student exchange within the European Union. Every third student hooks up with people from other countries – the unofficial Erasmus slogan, titled by the German newspaper Die Zeit “Erasmus Orgasmus” so certainly has its truth.

Yet there is another number worth looking at. With over 2,5 million students participating since its beginning receiving an average stipend of monthly 250€, the estimated costs go into several billions. Albeit, this is with less than 2% nothing compared to the overall EU budget, let alone the 33,1% which go into much less useful agricultural programs.

However, comparing both numbers the question comes into mind how much an decreased budget would change on the Erasmus experience. On the one hand Erasmus brings about connections of different people, multicultural experiences, shared languages, specific knowledge an increasing European identity and some dual-nationality babies. On the other hand, Erasmus stays for many students a semester connecting exclusively with one’s peers, studying little, drinking much, living easy and partying hard.

When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes” Erasmus von Rotterdam, the eponym of the programme once said. The little money Erasmus students get certainly won’t be invested into books. It invests itself mostly into alcohol, entry fees and travel costs, totalling the average monthly stipend often easily. While having fun and seeing the host country is a totally fine and even valuable decision, it goes contrary to Erasmus’ academic goal and should be rather achieved in one’s free time with his own money. As an eponym, the Dutch philosopher Erasmus certainly would not be that delighted about the orgies happening by his name.

The question thus is not about the undeniable value of the Erasmus programme, but rather about the necessity to fund it. Even less or no funds could certainly guarantee a valuable experience for everyone willing to commit to the academic requirements. So far, even doing essentially nothing during one semester is still credited with a full stipend. As studying one semester more or less is not a big deal for many, this certainly gives the wrong incentives.

In wake of the recent discussions about an end of the Erasmus programme the full cut-off cannot be a solution. Yet the questions remains, how much funding is necessary at all. Ultimately most money flows into fun, not into basic living and studying. Also, a huge number of exchange students is not dependent at all on their stipend, mainly those of Northern and Western European countries studying in countries with lower costs of living. Often, these students who are eager to live abroad also come from high socio-economic backgrounds, making additional funding unnecessary.They should be still able to enjoy a semester abroad yet should not necessarily get some pocket money for that. Reciprocal academic exchange between states is a great idea, funding students however should be linked to need, motivation and achievement.

Enabling students from poorer European countries an exchange semester is the important matter, not making rich students from rich countries even richer. This is important because studies regularly prove that high barriers for students of lower socio-economic background remain. Solutions however are not sole task of the European Union. Member states can do a lot to both enable their students as well their host students to live and study without being dependent on Erasmus stipends. This can, but does not necessarily have to be member state funding. For example, in many countries it is hard to find work for foreign students due to various government regulations. Lifting those would enable many students to finance their stay themselves. While the European Union prohibits discrimination against member state foreigners, different work situations pegged for example to minimum wage, certificates and licenses are still remaining.

One often overlooked outcome is the network Erasmus provides. Students gain valuable connections for life and universities better research through cooperation. Also, this increased cooperation makes it much easier to settle questions about insurance, rentals and the overall start in a new country let alone the drastically reduced bureaucracy in university administration. The effects of increasing, interdependent networks can be huge – and they are not dependent at all on any monetary funding.

In the end, a complete withdrawal of EU funding would be bad, destroying one of the only EU programmes widely regarded as successful. Nevertheless, it is not the extremes policy-makers have to decide about. They rather could link an Erasmus grant to stricter academic requirements, financial need and the motivation of real inter cultural academic experience. Everyone wanting to study a semester abroad on his own terms should be able to have the possibility – he or she only has to finance their pleasure themselves. As wealthy EU countries send far more students than those in poorer countries the savings could be either reinvested to enable more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds an exchange semester or be saved at all. In times of constrained budgets and economic crisis, this measure could even improve the outcome of Erasmus while simultaneously saving taxpayers money. Alas, only the future development of dual-nationality baby numbers could slightly decrease with less party and more diligence!


Christoph Heuermann, *1990, is the author of several articles about Europe, innovation, decentralisation and freedom. If he is not travelling the world, he studies political and administrative science in Konstanz, Germany. Having lived in Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and Madrid for long time, he is a strong advocate for a free and cosmopolitan Europe without borders.


Image by Moyan Brenn on Flickr.


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