Barcelona now turns to Socrates

June 23, 1995

Two universities in north-east Spain reflect on the successor to Erasmus. Rebecca Warden reports from Catalonia. Socrates, the successor to Erasmus, is to be launched formally in Paris on Monday. Under the Ecu850 million (Pounds 708 million) a year programme, student exchanges are to continue using the Erasmus label.

But by the time Socrates comes on stream in 1997, significant changes will have taken place. Barcelona has always been enthusiastic about Erasmus. With 160 exchange schemes involving 750 students moving either way this year, the University of Barcelona participates in the highest number of Erasmus exchange schemes of any European university. The Autonomous University of Barcelona, currently active in 122 schemes, moves more students per programme than any other European institution.

Various reasons explain the commitment - Barcelona's attraction as a city, its geographical location, and above all the interest of students and academics. For unlike many northern Europeans, Spanish students historically have had few options for study abroad.

Socrates's main innovations will be in terms of how the programme is organised in each university. While the students may not notice the difference, lecturers and, above all, international staff certainly will. Erasmus has always relied heavily on the initiative of individuals using their professional contacts to create departmental networks.

Numerous exchange schemes have been generated in this way, but over time the limitations of such large horizontal links have become clear. Often cumbersome, exchange programmes do not facilitate a free flow of information and often lead to unnecessary duplication of effort.

"It is not very logical to have five people in one department working away on maintaining contacts with the same universities," says Joan Anton Carbonell, director of exchange and co-operation at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

With Socrates, exchange programmes are integrated into a new vertical structure, establishing more direct lines of responsibility and communication between the universities and Brussels. The sum total of an institution's European activities will now be contained in a single document - the institutional contract. Universities will thus be able to plan their exchange links in a more coherent way. "Erasmus stops being a personal initiative and becomes a collective one," says Joan Anton Carbonell. Socrates allows for flexibility so that universities are free to design their internal mechanisms for handling exchange as they think fit.

The systems chosen by both Barcelona universities have a lot in common; a new unit in each faculty takes charge of exchange activities, former exchange coordinators continue to be involved but in ways more consistent with their teaching function, such as selecting outgoing students and tutoring visiting foreign students. This clearer division of responsibilities puts faculties back in the equation and gives international offices a more central organisational role.

Carles Marti, international director at the University of Barcelona, believes it will entail a different way of working rather than an increased workload.

Distribution of finance also becomes more vertical. Formerly coordinators of departmental networks, often in other European universities, distributed small amounts to cover operation costs. From now on, international offices will distribute money direct to departments as specified in the university contract. Both Joan Anton Carbonell and Carles Marti are confident that this unjustified design will mean savings for Brussels and free more resources for participating universities.

"Before, with so many exchange programmes, we were dealing with small amounts which had to be divided and sub-divided, so lots of money was wasted," says Carles Marti. "Now the EU will be able to exercise tighter financial control economies of scale will be possible, and we will also benefit."

Both international directors sayt the reorganisation is costing their institutions time and money, but believe it is a necessary part of their commitment to internationalisation.

Socrates also provides finance for areas such as designing courses with a high international content for the students who stay put. These students are still the vast majority, in the case of the Autonoma only 1.5 per cent of students study abroad, and Joan Anton Carbonell thinks this activity is bound to grow.

The programme also permits applications to fund joint activities by groups of universities. This is clearly of interest to the Barcelona universities, which are negotiating with three other universities, the city council, chamber of commerce and local tourist board to set up a regional consortium.

Both international directors agree that Erasmus has had a profound impact on Spanish universities, above all as a vehicle for integration into the European mainstream. "Five years ago, if I went to a German or a British university, nobody knew us," says Joan Anton. "Now I have a network of 20 or so unversities where we all know each other.

"When someone wants to send students abroad, they know that things also happen south of the Pyrenees. He believes Erasmus has been fundamental in changing attitudes in the Autonoma, making what was unthinkable five years ago, common currency today, namely, accepting non-standard students for short periods without charging tuition fees. This change of mentality has in turn made it easier for foreign students to come outside of Erasmus.

Another spin-off is the possibility of using Erasmus as a practical model for exchange with other countries. Alpha, the EU-Latin America programme, is one such example.

The Autonoma and University of Barcelona are planning exchanges with the US, Mexico and Japan. Both international directors view Socrates as a logical step forward from the original Erasmus format. In terms of student mobility, it represents a rationalisation, providing clearer, more flexible structures for future growth.

It also means the professionalisation of those involved in universities, and should lead to greater quality in the student's experience of study abroad. "I see it as the fruit of experience," says Carles Marti. "On the one hand, try to rationalise, on the other, improve the quality, because till now quantity was more important."

Joan Anton Carbonell believes another major overhaul may be needed in five years. Meanwhile, only time will tell whether Socrates will prove to be as effective a motor for internationalising our universities as Erasmus has been, he says.

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