Nation builders’ Euro monument

July 25, 2013

Erasmus, the Renaissance humanist scholar, lives on in rejuvenated form. His name, used by the European Union since 1987 for its programme of subsidised student mobility and university cooperation, will now, as Erasmus+, be the brand name for all the EU’s education programmes. Included under the umbrella are the Leonardo da Vinci programme for vocational education and training, Comenius School Partnerships and the Jean Monnet Action professorships. Also included are the EU’s international higher education programmes, such as Erasmus Mundus, with its generous grants for third-country students to study in European universities, and regional higher education cooperation programmes such as ALFA, centred on Latin America.

The deal just sealed by the Irish presidency of the EU will allow the new tranche of the seven-year education programmes to go ahead as a European Parliament and EU Council regulation from January. The “trilogue” agreement of European Commission, Council and Parliament pushes the budget, at €16 billion (£14 billion), almost back to the level originally proposed. The name Erasmus+ is closer to Erasmus for All, favoured by the Council and Commission over a mad idea by Parliament in these contentious times to call it “YES Europe”.

The widening of scope and social dimension that Erasmus+ exemplifies should be a bonus for sectors such as vocational education and school cooperation.

The programme will give national agencies more autonomy, but that is part of Brussels’ big plan for it to feed more smoothly into the EU growth strategy (Europe 2020 and its education and training offshoot, ET2020), plus framework policies for higher education modernisation. A plan for EU-backed loans for master’s programmes to be financed by commercial banks has already proved controversial.

Jump to the French Alpine city of Grenoble, which is just a few ski runs away from Italy, Switzerland and Austria. A few weeks ago, this lively multilingual city, a hub for multinational scientific research, hosted a conference to celebrate 25 years of Erasmus. The regional Bologna expert, Jean-Luc Lamboley, a human geographer and specialist at the University of Lyon 2 on classical-era migration, gave a zany example of the rocky path to Europeanisation. The French government backs Bologna, yet at one point the National Assembly rejected plans for joint cross-border doctorates. Why? Because it would be impossible to print the certificates. French degrees are certified on paper over which the assembly holds the monopoly, signifying that a French degree is a symbol of indivisible national sovereignty.

A strength of the Grenoble conference was that it showed that it takes many people and institutions to create a monument. That is surely what Erasmus and its educational offshoots have become: a European monument. Speaker after speaker, from Hywel Ceri Jones, the “inventor” of Erasmus in 1987, to school teachers and student activists, talked of the highs and lows of creating and implementing such policies.

For Professor Lamboley, the undeniable European achievement of the past 25 years is the creation of common structures for trans-border study, underpinned by quality assurance and recognition. But as his story about doctoral certificates indicates, removing the pebbles from the river bed to allow the river to flow is not done in Brussels. It is national forces that do – or don’t do – the job.

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