The Erasmus Scheme was set up in 1987 with the admirable aim of increasing academic mobility within Europe.
Via the funding of exchange programmes for students and staff, the scheme involves 90 per cent of all European universities and colleges across 31 countries.
However, as it approaches its quarter-century, the equitability of the scheme is a matter of debate, and it remains unclear whether students in some participating countries – rich or poor – get as much out of it as those from others.
Some observers see a growing “unfairness gap” as a result of the distribution of funding.
In poorer countries, especially in Eastern Europe, there seems to be plenty of appetite for study-abroad schemes, but there are big financial hurdles for would-be participants to clear.
Each country allocates its Erasmus funding as it sees fit, but regardless of approach, the pot of cash is always limited. This can lead to financial disparities based on demand.
In the UK, for example, where fewer students apply to participate in Erasmus than in some other countries, the bursary handed out is substantial.
This academic year (2010-11) the allocation per student is €225 (£191) a month, but the British Council, which oversees the scheme in the UK, carries out a half-yearly review based on final participation numbers, and expects the allocation to rise to between €300 and €350 a month.
This may not sound like a lot for a student living in an expensive city such as London, but accord¬ing to one Slovakian academic, it is enough to “live like a king in Bratislava”.
By contrast, students from Slovakia may find living in an expensive foreign city on their monthly stipend – which varies by destination but can be as low as €200 – much tougher.
“The national agencies for the Erasmus programme will be responsible for the distribution of grants, and [the amount] depends on how many people take part,” explained Leo Smith, secretary of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN).
“Because the UK has quite low participation, the UK-based students receive a decent amount of money.”
He said that he knew of some students who had made considerable savings during their Erasmus year, whereas others will have had to put their hand in their own pocket – or rely on money from their parents – to make ends meet.
The financial difficulties faced by students with lower stipends may help explain why many choose not to travel far, sticking instead to neighbouring countries. In 2008-09, for example, the Czech Republic welcomed almost as many students from Poland (483) as it did from France (494).
This is consistent with the findings of a survey conducted by the ESN in 2008, which found that respondents already felt informed about their host country’s culture before they arrived, and that half had visited it before.
This tendency to stay close to home arguably undermines the aims of the scheme; worse still, many potential participants may have been put off altogether.
That is precisely what is happening, according to Jerzy Rutkowski, vice-rector for international cooperation at the Silesian University of Technology in Poland.
“Polish students are less and less interested in participating in this programme. Why? Because of the higher cost of living,” he said.
“Today, one semester abroad can imply an additional cost of about €1,000 [on top of the stipend]. What I’m always repeating [is that] such expenditure is the best investment in your future, but the students are not listening.”