Alessandro Fusco, International Officer, Young European Movement UK///
As my plane was descending on the sundried Castilian countryside, I remember the excitement and the expectation I was feeling. I was looking forward to my Erasmus year in Salamanca, a beautiful city 200km west of Madrid, famous for its university – the fourth oldest in Europe – and its cathedrals. With around 35,000 students living in the city (out of a population of 160,000), I quickly became immersed in a new and wonderful world where thousands of university students from all over Europe were trying to sort out their new lives as Spanish students.
I remember how at the beginning of the academic year, small groups of students from the same countries could be seen wondering around looking for accommodation, sorting out their registration and getting to know the city. But by the time the summer heat had given way to the autumn rains, national identities had begun to fade and a mix of different accents could be heard at the same time in the university halls, in the canteens, and in the many bars and cafés.
That year in Salamanca was the best I had as a university student. Not only I learned a new language, made new friends and experienced a different way of life. That year enriched my life in the academic and professional fields, giving me many valuable skills which have been very useful later in my life. But more than that, it changed my life. After completing my undergraduate degree I returned to Spain, where I lived for three years before moving to the UK.
Looking back at that year, and as we have this year reached over 3 million Erasmus students, I can proudly say that I am one of the millions of Europeans who participated in the EU’s Erasmus programme since its launch in 1987. Nowadays it is difficult to realise that when those first 3,244 students from 11 countries left to study abroad they did it in a very different Europe, where the Berlin wall was still standing high, Europe was still divided and the Cold War was not just something used as a theme for spy movies. We have gone a long way since then and during the academic year 2011-12, 33 countries took part in the programme, with around 253,000 students going to another country to study, train or to take up a job placement with a foreign company to boost their employability. In fact, 1 in 5 Erasmus students, almost 50 000 in total, chose job placements in companies in 2011-12.
The new Erasmus+ programme, due for launch in January 2014, will enable 4 million young people to study, train, teach or volunteer abroad in the next seven years.
The EU invests €450 million euro a year to offer financial support for students that want to study abroad. Thanks to that money Erasmus students are exempted from paying fees for tuition, registration, examinations and access to laboratory and library facilities at the host university.
The average monthly Erasmus grant, designed to cover part of the additional costs of living abroad and travel, was €252. The grant is topped up in some countries by national, regional or institutional funds.
The most popular destination among European students in 2011-12 was – perhaps unsurprisingly – Spain, which received 39,300 students, followed by France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. Spain was also the country sending the most students abroad, almost 40,000, closely followed by Germany, France, Italy and Poland. The UK is not amongst the countries which send the most students abroad, with less than 14,000 Britons studying or training in another EU country in 2011-12. While this is certainly an improvement compared to a few years ago (in 2005-06 only around 7,000 participated in the exchange programme), there is still much untapped potential for British students to exploit in the future.
Indeed, participating in the programme is not only a wonderful life experience and, quite frankly, a great opportunity to have fun, but it gives participating students a competitive advantage in the labour market in these though economic times. Multiple studies by the British Council and other UK bodies have showed that employers around the world not only value the ability to work with people from other cultures as highly as they value formal qualifications, but they also believe that a lack of these skills in the workforce can open them up to serious risks including losing clients.
It’s now with a bit of envy that I think about those young girls and boys who are currently enrolled in last-minute, intensive language courses ahead of the start of their Erasmus exchange at the end of the summer. They probably don’t know yet, but their life is about to change.