Travel restrictions and closed or socially-distanced campuses mean many of the class of 2021 won’t leave home, but the commission is injecting €200 million to enable distance learning and keep the Erasmus+ programme on the road
As students head back to universities this September, a new cycle of Erasmus+ exchanges is starting, but the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way the EU‘s student mobility programmes will be delivered.
European (and non-European) university students will still study at foreign universities, but the crucial mobility aspect is in danger.
Students can enrol as usual, but some universities are not inviting them to come to their campuses and only providing online classes. Others are offering full or blended mobility, which will see students learning remotely, with a chance to go abroad if and when circumstances allow.
“This is a first time in the Erasmus+ programme,” said Kostis Giannidis, president of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). “It’s a totally different experience.”
In addition, fears surrounding COVID-19 and travelling mean fewer students want to participate in the programme. No statistics are available yet, but Giannidis said, “From local associations, we know there is a decrease in interest.”
Ivana Didak, senior policy officer at the Guild, an association of research-intensive European universities, said it is pleased with the European Commission’s efforts to ensure student exchanges can continue, but warned planning for the mobility aspect of the programme remains difficult and expensive. “Universities will need to allocate considerable resources to reach pre-Covid-19 mobility numbers,” she said.
The good news for students is that grants for the newly digital Erasmus+ will remain the same as before.
In addition to allowing more flexibility, the commission is investing €200 million to enhance digital resources and promote creativity, and over the following weeks will launch calls for project proposals.
“The crisis has demonstrated that we are not there, where we should be in terms of using digital tools,” a commission spokeswoman told Science|Business.
The crisis has disproportionately affected already disadvantaged pupils, which is why extra money is also available for creativity programmes. “We have to do more on inclusion. One way to do that is to use more creative and cultural activities to bring students back to learning,” said the spokeswoman.
“Building digital education and skills is the right direction, not only because of COVID-19 but also because we are moving into a new digital era,” said Giannidis. However, online learning should complement rather than replace traditional, face-to-face teaching.
The extra €200 million to be invested in digital and creativity programmes is not new money. Every year, some Erasmus+ projects do not use their entire budget. This year, these funds were pulled together from national and central agencies for the COVID-19 response.
Green and digital Erasmus
The new semester is the last one under the current Erasmus+ framework. From 2021, a new programme with a new budget will start. “[It will be] more digital, more inclusive, more environmentally sustainable, and the European Commission is aiming to make the programme more international,” said Giannidis.
The changes will include incentives to students choosing to travel by train or bus; the simplification and digitisation of application procedures; and higher participation targets for non-EU countries.
‘Blended mobility’ is also on the list of changes. COVID-19 brought forward the timeline for the implementation of this new type of student exchange, but it was officially planned to be launched in 2021.
The commission also recently announced a tender for updating the Erasmus+ mobile app to include the ability to apply for Erasmus+ programmes from a smartphone, said Giannidis.
However, Giannidis warns, all these plans were made with a much bigger budget in mind than the EU leaders agreed upon in July. The commission had initially proposed a budget of €30 billion for the education and training programme, but that has been cut to €21.2 billion.
“This is a very negative outcome because we were advocating for a higher budget since the beginning of the negotiations,” said Giannidis.
While the budget is significantly bigger than the €14.7 billion allocated to Erasmus+ for 2014-2020, there are fears it will not be enough to make the planned upgrades.
“Higher education is experiencing profound changes and Erasmus+ will be crucial to strengthen teaching and learning,” said Didak. ”That’s why we hope the European Parliament will now focus on improving spending on Erasmus+ in the next [budget].”
The budget deal is currently in the hands of the parliament waiting for approval. Once approved, it will be split among different Erasmus+ programmes and final details of the EU’s education programme will be officially agreed.