The EU has much to learn from a wise old-timer

November 29, 2002

Politicians should take a leaf out of the Erasmus book if they want Europe to thrive, says Anne Corbett

Four people who between them invented and brought to fruition one of the European Union's most successful programmes - the Erasmus scheme for university cooperation and student exchange - will today receive honorary degrees from the Université Libre de Brussels.

More than a million students and thousands of academics have applied for exchange grants since the programme's creation in 1987. Hundreds of joint projects have been launched, and almost every university in the EU has participated. The scheme now has links to other continents. An expanded programme, Erasmus World, proposed by the European Commission in July, is before the European Parliament.

Now seems an opportune moment to question whether the Convention on the Future Shape of European Institutions appreciates the wider lessons of the Erasmus experience. It looks unlikely. The convention's approach is heavily institutional and focuses on questions of defence, security and whether there should be one president of the EU or two.

Fifteen of Europe's nations have travelled the peaceful road to shared sovereignty, and another ten follow close behind. We want to see an EU on the eve of enlargement that is newly energised, more transparently democratic and an enabling rather than a regulatory force.

The Erasmus model has three characteristics that are of particular relevance to the convention. First, it is a model that demands a commitment from every individual involved. People need to exercise initiative. Recently, UK Erasmus graduates presented their experiences to higher education minister Margaret Hodge. Among them were the young and not so young. For some of the students, it was their first time away from home. But bar the odd disaster with red tape, personal incompatibilities and accommodation, they told a confident tale. They had become more ambitious, more skilled, more open to other ways of thought and hence better students, better teachers and better linguists. They had fun becoming Europeans.

The second strength of Erasmus is that it is a model for building trust between institutions. Inter-institutional collaboration is increasingly seen as public management smart practice. The empirical Erasmus experience suggests that view is justified. A basic function of the programme - to get academics across Europe to work together to stimulate quality and innovation - has worked well. Even in the UK, where recent policy has too often made universities see Erasmus as a financial threat rather than as an opportunity, there are endless spin-offs in research and cross-frontier training. An instrumental ambition of the programme was to get round the different admission and financial requirements of the then nine systems, and this has come a long way. The Bologna process is a voluntary convergence on structures and recognition between universities and governments in 29 countries, and has developed directly from the Erasmus experience.

The third aspect that makes Erasmus a model is that its decision-making is built on institutional autonomy and subsidiarity. This was the case long before the Maastricht Treaty built subsidiarity into the texts. The corollary is important. The motor that has enabled the programme to take off, in a way that Council of Europe programmes never have, has come from partnership with the commission.

The Erasmus achievement is due in large measure to the work of those the Belgian university will honour today: Hywel Ceri Jones, who spent 20 years from 1973 developing an education policy for the EC; Alan Smith, responsible for much of the policy development for more than a decade; and Domenico Lenarduzzi and Kiki Verli-Wallace, who have managed the commission end of the programme in recent years.

From the inception of the community in 1955, there were little-known attempts to build higher education into the community design. The distinguishing feature of Erasmus is that it was the first to progress from idea to institution, and even this required 30 years of advocacy. The problem with European action on education is that of decision by lowest common denominator. The Council of Ministers is the site of endless arguments about legitimacy and funding when EU educational initiatives are proposed. That is why the convention is important. It can state that the kind of values inherent in Erasmus should be an integral part of the EU.

Anne Corbett is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' Interdisciplinary Institute of Management.

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