Erasmus programme still going strong despite Covid and Brexit

Around a hundred representatives of international education agencies across Europe gathered in Prague this week to discuss current challenges facing the Erasmus+ program. The so-called Directors' Meeting is traditionally organised by the country holding the EU presidency, which is currently Czechia.

Most Europeans are familiar with the Erasmus programme, launched in 1987 as a student exchange programme that has so far allowed millions of students to study for a semester or year abroad at another European university. Fewer people are aware of the subtle addition of a plus sign that first appeared in 2014, rebranding the programme as Erasmus+. But as director of the Czech National Agency for International Education and Research (Dům zahraniční spolupráce) Michal Uhl explains, the rebranding was not merely symbolic.

“The Erasmus+ programme is the successor of the Erasmus programme. The plus signifies that it includes not only higher education, but also vocational training and school education, youth and adult education.”

Michal Uhl | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

Meaning that since 2014, it is not only university students who have been able to go abroad – school pupils, vocational trainees and even adult learners have also been able to take part in foreign exchanges, apprenticeships and internships.

Naturally, the Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact, with Czechia only sending about half of its usual cohort abroad in 2020 as compared to the previous six years. But since then, interest only seems to have grown, as Aoileann Ní Bhroin from the Erasmus+ Irish National Agency for Higher Education elucidates.

“What we’ve actually seen is that post-lockdown, there’s been huge interest in the Erasmus programme, we’ve seen our highest ever numbers on record.”

Photo: Brooke Cagle,  Unsplash,  CC0

The most popular destinations for Czech students participating in Erasmus+ between 2014 and 2020 were Germany, Spain, and the UK. With the departure of the UK from the EU in 2020, the country is no longer participating in Erasmus+, meaning Czechia lost its third most popular destination for Erasmus+ participants.

However, Ireland, which currently ranks at tenth place, may step in to fill the role, as the only remaining country in the EU where English is spoken as a native language by a majority of the population. There are also other benefits to studying in Ireland, as Aoileann Ní Bhroin tells me.

“It’s an attractive destination, we have a great higher education system that is ready and very happy to take in students from abroad.”

Meanwhile, Czechia receives most of its Erasmus+ participants from Slovakia, Turkey and Spain, and sends a roughly equivalent number of students abroad as it receives, with both numbers hovering just above or below the 20,000 mark (with the exception of 2020), according to data from 2014 - 2020.

But the Erasmus+ programme is now in a new phase. Its 2014-2020 program has come to an end, and the 2021-2027 Erasmus+ is “more inclusive, more digital, and more green” according to the motto on its website, with opportunities for all ages, and more choice for organisations.

Photo illustrative: Charles University

Despite the challenges thrown its way over the past few years, the Erasmus+ programme hopes to go on giving more young people the opportunity to experience life abroad and enrich their lives, says Michal Uhl.

“It’s a huge change – it opens the minds and changes the lives of people going abroad, so they are more confident, they have lower unemployment rates, and they better understand the world they are living in.”

Author: Anna Fodor
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