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Erasmus for All: Investing in the Skills and Knowledge Development of Europe’s Youth

bridges vol. 34, July 2012 / Letter from Brussels

By Florian Pecenka

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Florian Pecenka Every seven years, the same ritual takes place in Brussels: negotiations for a new financial framework. The financial framework sets out the EU's budget spending priorities for seven years, laying down maximum amounts ("ceilings") for each broad budget category to ensure that expenditures stay within the limit of the EU's own resources.

Erasmus for All, a newly proposed EU program for education, training, student and youth programs, and sports, is part of the current financial framework negotiations. The program, as proposed by the European Commission on November 23, 2011, would entail an overall budget of some €19 billion, including €1.8 billion for international cooperation, thereby providing mobility opportunities for more than five million people.

The Commission's Erasmus for All proposal is currently under discussion by the Council (27 Member States) and the European Parliament, which are in charge of making the final decision on the program. This article outlines the cornerstones of the Erasmus for All program as it was proposed by the Commission in November 2011.


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The cornerstones of the new Erasmus for All program

Against the background of the financial and economic crisis and rising unemployment rates in Europe, especially among young people, the Commission has proposed a completely new program design, which can be divided into three key actions:

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 Some of the most drastic changes of the new Erasmus for All program would include:

  • The legal base for Erasmus for All would require a regulation, rather than just a decision of the Council and European Parliament. The Commission argued that, due to the new Lisbon Treaty, a regulation is needed – an opinion that was backed by the legal service of the EU.
  • All current mobility programs (Erasmus, Comenius, Leonardo), including mobility programs with third countries (such as Erasmus Mundus), would be merged into a single program. This should lead to simplification and lower administrative overhead due to synergies between the existing programs.
  • Programs such as Jean Monnet and all youth programs would be merged or also shortened, and a new program for sports and a new master's student loan guarantee scheme would be established within the Erasmus for All framework. Jean Monnet would continue as an independent program, but the initiative would support only the European College in Bruges and the European University Institute in Florence.
  • Member States would designate a single coordinating body as their national point of contact for the program. Wherever more than one national agency is currently managing the programs, the coordination work would be reassigned to a single body to coordinate all national agencies in that country. This should streamline interactions between the Commission and Member States.
  • Existing program names would be changed into Erasmus higher education, Erasmus youth, Erasmus schools, and Erasmus training in order to afford the new program more visibility, as the term "Erasmus" is best known by the European public in the context of mobility.
  • A reform of the audit system and better use of IT tools would be implemented in order to simplify the program and reduce administrative costs.
  • The European Commission asks for a €19 billion budget, 66 percent for key action 1, 26 percent for key action 2, and 5 percent for key action 3. The remaining 3 percent is foreseen as funding operational grants for the national agencies. All the points above were made to convince the Member States' finance ministers to agree on an increased education budget at the EU level.


Structure of the Erasmus for All key actions

Key action 1 – Learning Mobility – will deal with all sorts of individual mobility inside and outside the EU.

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All EU student mobility programs would be regrouped under student mobility: Erasmus, as well as the five student mobility programs with third countries such as Edulink, Alpha, and Erasmus Mundus. This heading would also encompass students' vocational education and training, and transnational traineeships in businesses.

A new member of the mobility family will be the Erasmus Master: A feasibility study commissioned by the European Commission concluded that there is a market gap regarding the availability of financial support for full-program cross-border studies, notably at the master's level. The new Erasmus Master is designed as financial support for full-program cross-border studies covering the whole European Union. "Master" is understood to mean a master's degree according to the Bologna process. The program would work as a student loan to be obtained from a commercial bank in any participating country, but would be guaranteed by the European Investment Fund (EIF) against the possible default on loans. Financial intermediaries would receive an EIF guarantee on a fixed percentage of their loan portfolio and up to a fixed percentage of each eligible loan, with percentages determined to ensure a balance between: a) the need of financial intermediaries to receive some support for putting the loan product on the market, and b) the need to maintain the interest of financial intermediaries in recovering loans, thus ensuring the best value for money and leverage from the use of EU funds. The guarantee is proposed to cover loans of up to €12,000 or €18,000 for one- or two-year master's programs, respectively. It should be noted that the new Erasmus Master Program is still in a very preliminary phase, needs to be tested under full market conditions, and requires approval by Finance and Education Ministers, so changes in the current proposal are likely.

Key action 2 – Cooperation – will deal with all kind of cooperation with a special focus on education and business.

 

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 The strategic partnerships are meant to enhance cooperation between educational institutions, for one example, by providing joint degrees.

The intention of knowledge alliances and sector skills alliances is to boost cooperation between business and higher education, and vocational education and training (VET). Knowledge alliances are designed for higher education institutions whereas sector skills alliances are designed for VET institutions, but each concept is open to the other education sector. The European Commission has launched a first call for pilot projects in the field of sector skills alliances. From an Austrian point of view, it might be particularly interesting for the Universities of Applied Sciences to apply for projects under the sector skills alliances.

All existing IT tools, such as e-twinning, will be grouped under IT platforms; cooperation between the EU and third countries (previously addressed by the former Tempus and Erasmus Mundus programs) will be grouped under capacity building. Key action 2 has strong links to the Europe 2020 strategy and seeks to help meet the European targets in education, which aim to have at least 40 percent of 30- to 34-year-olds completing third level education or the equivalent and to reduce school dropout rates below 10 percent by 2020.

Under key action 3 – Policy Reforms – the Commission plans to unify all tools regarding policy reforms.

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 One must understand that tools such as the Europass or European Qualification Framework will figure under EU tools. The focus is on transparency tools, but the new ranking system U-Multirank will also be found here.

The policy dialog consists of maintaining a dialog with third countries and using fora such as the Bologna Policy Forum, in which Member States of the Bologna Process discuss challenges and achievements with third countries. The European Commission also wants to foster discussion with European neighbourhood countries as a priority in Europe's external policy. Key action 3 should also contribute to achieving Europe's 2020 targets in education.

Let the negotiations begin ...

Negotiations for Erasmus for All began during the Danish presidency in the first half of 2012. Some "jumbo meetings" took place, as both the youth and the sports committee were invited to participate in the education committee's meetings, which led the process. At the beginning of the negotiations, a much-debated issue was that the new legal base for Erasmus for All would be a regulation rather than just a decision of the Council and European Parliament. The Commission based its view on the new Lisbon Treaty and the EU legal service backed this view. However, most Member States argued that education is a national competence and a regulation would have a direct impact on the Member States' national education systems. Member States also feared that individuals could go before the European Court and sue States on the basis of the new regulation. But since only a small number of Member States were against the legal form of a regulation, the Danish Presidency kept the Commission's proposal unchanged.

Another long-discussed topic was the relation between the European Commission, national authority, and national agencies. This has to be seen in relation to the attempt at simplification. While the European Commission wanted to give more power and flexibility to the national agencies, Member States were afraid of losing control over their national agencies and receiving more administrative burdens. Thus, Member States pushed for more control mechanisms over the national agencies. Also, the EU Commission wanted a single coordinating body – meaning that if a Member State has more than one national agency managing the programs, one of these must be nominated as the exclusive point of contact and discussion partner for the Commission. This was deleted from the legal base of the original proposal of Erasmus for All, as Germany, Belgium, and some other Member States objected to the suggestion.

A partial agreement could be reached in May and decided at the Education Council on May 11, meaning that the Council has agreed on all articles of the legal base except those articles dealing with financial issues (those have been put in brackets). The reasoning is that the education ministers are not competent in financial issues, which have to be decided by the Member States' finance ministers. Financial issues also depend on the size of the 2014-2020 EU budget, which has not yet been decided.

... and the discussion continues

The Commission's draft and Council's opinion now have to be negotiated with the CULT Committee (Committee on Culture and Education) of the European parliament. Rapporteur of the proposal is Doris Pack (European People's Party; EPP). The CULT has already held initial discussions about the proposal. Pack will present a first draft of the report in September of this year; and the final vote of the Parliament is scheduled for March 2013, leaving nine months for national agencies to implement the new program structure. The Commission has already taken the first steps toward implementation and has held several technical meetings with national agencies, as it is quite unrealistic that the structure, as it stands now, will be fundamentally changed by the negotiations between the European Parliament, the Commission, and the Council.

Why Erasmus for All now?

The Commission's proposal follows a clear strategy: to modernize educational programs that have grown during the last 25 years and make them fit for the new century. Keeping in mind that a significant number of Member States requested a budget reduction of at least €100 billion in the next multiannual financing framework, the Commission intends to counterattack with a single, smart, and simplified mobility program. The Commission is trying to convince Member States that the new program means less administration, more synergies between programs, greater user-friendliness, and better flexibility when spending money, as the Commission proposes a flexibility margin of 44 percent within Action 1, the Learning Mobility focus. The Commission's intention is to prove to Member States that it is willing to meet Member States' exigencies about smarter, more cost-effective and less bureaucratic EU programs. Those arguments also put the Commission in a position to ask for more investment in education, with the EU 2020 strategy and several Council conclusions asking Member States to invest more in education, science, and research.

However, it is somewhat difficult to negotiate on a new program for education, training, youth, and sport, when the outcome of the overall financial framework negotiations for 2014-2020 is still undetermined. Currently, sector programs are being discussed without knowing exact budget numbers, and sector program negotiations can only be finalized once a decision is made on the new financial framework. One might argue that the whole process would be much easier if the EU's overall budget were first decided, and then the sector budgets.

Being an eternal optimist, I see the new program as a positive development for Europe's youth. However, I do not believe that the new program will receive the €20 billion the Commission requested – more likely, Erasmus for All will get some €10 billion. Events of the coming months will show how seriously Europe's leaders take their call for more investment in education: It's a good opportunity to demonstrate their understanding that allocating funds for education is not simply another expense but is an investment in our future.

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The author, Florian Pecenka, is a member of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Science and Research. Since 2010 Pecenka has been working as attaché for scientific affairs at the Austrian Representation to the EU in Brussels.

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