Romania and Bulgaria are queuing up to join Europe's student mobility scheme, Ard Jongsma reports
ROMANIA will this autumn become one of the first three countries from former Eastern Europe to join the Erasmus education exchange programme. It will cost them an arm, a leg, and if they are not careful, their reputation.
As a non-European Union country, Romania has to buy an "entry ticket" to Socrates, the EU's student mobility programme, fixed at 52 billion lei (about Pounds 5 million), but it will not give a free ride on all of the attractions of the European educational fairground.
That amount could have raised all academic salaries by 10 per cent. But education minister Andrei Marga is not impressed by statistical juggling:
"The money will be used for developing curricula and training our students abroad. I think it is well spent and the European integration process deserves our full support."
Co-funding is the keyword in Socrates. The average monthly Erasmus grant of Ecu100 (Pounds 67) is not going to get a Romanian student very far in any EU capital, so top-up funding is required. The state treasury is so poor that the minimum percentage of gross domestic product to be spent on education, which was fixed at four per cent in the 1995 Education Law, could barely be met this year.
Although there is public support for EU-accession in Romania, not everyone agrees that the rushed entry into Erasmus has been wise. Many academics mistakenly believe that Erasmus is the direct successor to Tempus, the EU support project for higher education in Central and Eastern Europe.
Dan Grigorescu, director of the National Tempus Office in Romania, said:
"Many people still come up to me when I visit universities and say that they have heard that Tempus will soon be over, but that, luckily, there will at least be this Erasmus programme. People have no idea."
Angheluta Vadineanu, head of Bucharest University's ecology department, said that joining Socrates "was a political signal and I don't know whether it was a mistake or not . . . anyway, we have to keep our commitment".
That will not be easy. The country's infrastructure is a big stumbling block. There is a severe accommodation shortage for students and international relations offices, if operational at all, are badly understaffed.
"There is an international office at the university, but if you go through it you have to work twice. First you have to find out everything for yourself and then you have to advise and convince them," Professor Vadineanu said.
Bulgaria, Romania's southern neighbour, plans to join Erasmus next year. Their odds are little better than Romania's for a smooth shift from fully-funded assistance to co-funded cooperation. Rapidly shifting governments of all political hues have left the country's ministerial think-tank lagging behind the academic field it is supposed to govern.
Through a Tempus project, five universities are "playing Erasmus" with a consortium of EU universities while the head of state policy in higher education has no clue what they are up to.
Anna-Maria Totomanova, deputy minister responsible for higher education and international cooperation, is trying to temper university autonomy by re-centralising at least the coordination of international activity.
The Bulgarian National Socrates Agency has been established under the umbrella of the new National Training Agency of the education ministry. Staff were appointed in April.
However, Ms Totomanova is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. She needs money for reforms, more money than the EU can offer. The World Bank is willing to lend, but on the condition that the number of universities will be reduced.
She is in for trouble as she tries to cut the number of universities and faculties that have sprung up since the fall of communism. Standards have dropped as student-teacher ratios in some faculties are 60:1. Academia has become a travelling circus with professors touring the country to lecture.
Ms Totomanova's immediate predecessors have burnt their fingers trying to regulate universities. These attempts are conceived as an assault on their sovereignty.
The road to European educational integration is bumpy but Bulgaria and Romania are at least confident that their students and academics are equal to the task. Prejudices in Western Europe against the quality of participants from partner universities on the exchanges have been consistently proven wrong by the Tempus experience.