Erasmus came into being in 1987. In that year 3000 students took the opportunity offered by the programme to enrich their education at another European university. In 2002, 15 years later, the milestone of the first million students was passed. This shows the growing success of Erasmus, which has always been supported by the European Parliament and which, as part of the broader Socrates programme, has spawned its own progeny: Comenius, Grundtvig, Lingua and Minerva. Over the years, MEPs have seen it as their role to set more ambitious goals and secure more resources for these programmes.
Seven students of different nationalities - French, Italian, British, Danish, German, Spanish (from Andalucia) and Belgian - find themselves living in an apartment in Barcelona for a year. They're there for their final year of studies as a result of the Erasmus university exchange programme. A small European community develops, with its cultural differences, misunderstandings and similarities. This is 'L'Auberge espagnole', a French film comedy directed by Cédric Klapisch which shows students benefiting from a very practical aspect of the European project, and opening up to other languages and cultures.
The Erasmus programme seeks to promote mobility not only for students but also for university teachers, and to devise and implement study programmes, intensive courses, multidisciplinary activities and the teaching of some subjects in other languages. Erasmus has also developed the European Community Course Credit Transfer System (ECTS), which is intended to facilitate academic recognition of periods of study spent in other Member States. This system encourages student mobility by enabling such periods to be taken into account for degree purposes.
Under the wing of Socrates
In 1995 Erasmus became a part of Socrates, a wider European education programme that ranges beyond the frontiers of the European Union, bringing in around 30 European countries: the current 15 Member States, the 10 accession countries, Bulgaria, Romania and the three non-EU members of the European Economic Area (Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein). In the near future Turkey will be included. Socrates consists not only of Erasmus but also Comenius (from pre-school to secondary level), Grundtvig (adult education and lifelong learning), Lingua (language learning) and Minerva (distance learning and information technology).
All these European programmes are designed to complement national policies, on the basis of the subsidiarity principle: the Member States are responsible for national education policies and programmes, while the European Union is responsible for encouraging cooperation between them. The EU promotes the European dimension and the mutual recognition of diplomas, and encourages mobility for students and teachers as well as the exchange of information and best practice. All of this has the long-term goal of creating a European higher education area. In this field, Parliament is the joint legislator, together with the Council (i.e. national governments) and thus has an important say in the final shape of the legislation.
However, despite its growing success Erasmus has yet to reach the ambitious goal set by Parliament when it adopted the second phase of the Socrates programme (2000-2006), namely having around 10% of European students participate in the mobility schemes funded by Erasmus. The programme had to go to a third reading before it was adopted in January 2000: Parliament held out until the end of the legislative procedure to secure a significant increase in the budget (with the possibility of revising the budget in the event of enlargement) and to simplify the administrative procedures. As a result of Parliament's efforts, the Socrates budget for 2000-2006 was set at 1.85 billion euros and a revision clause for enlargement was included. At the outset the Commission had proposed a budget of only 1.4 billion, while the Council was at first unwilling to go beyond 1.55 billion.
Parliament, supported by the Commission, also worked to give Socrates an explicit role in developing a 'European educational area', but, faced with opposition from the Council, for which this idea appeared to be taboo, MEPs had to be content with a reference to 'a European dimension in education and training'.
The 'Bologna process'
In 1999, however, 29 European States had signed the 'Bologna Declaration', which seeks to create a European higher education area by the end of the current decade. Some alignment of systems actually seems necessary if Europe is to become 'the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world', in accordance with the Lisbon strategy adopted by the European Council in March 2000. In Bologna, ministers also undertook to reshape university courses on the basis of A-levels +3, +5 or +8 years (i.e. bachelor's degree, master's degree, doctorate) and to ensure that the worldwide attractiveness of the higher education sector in Europe matches our great cultural and scientific traditions.
In 2001, the Council adopted a recommendation on the free movement of persons. It called on the Member States to remove the legal and administrative obstacles to mobility for students and teachers, and to promote the learning of Community languages in order to encourage such mobility. The Member States were also encouraged to promote a 'European area of qualifications', partly by making use of the ECTS. All these recommendations were fully in accordance with Parliament's wishes. However, the fiscal and social measures that MEPs had called for were not adopted, with the result that practical obstacles to mobility may persist.
Towards the end of the parliamentary term, in October 2003, Parliament was able to make a significant contribution to the launch of a new Community programme open to the whole world. Today, most students taking part in international exchanges opt to go to the United States. The aim of Erasmus Mundus is to attract more of them to European universities. It will offer scholarships to more than 4000 graduate students from third countries - i.e. non-EU, non-EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) and non-candidate countries - and to almost 1000 teachers. MEPs, who warmly welcomed the programme, were able to make progress on their idea of a European higher education area by achieving the creation of Erasmus Mundus masters courses, to enable students to make a 'European tour' of several universities. Parliament also conducted tough negotiations with the Council to secure a bigger budget. The Commission initially proposed 200 million euros for 2004-2006, and the Council only 180 million, both of which MEPs considered inadequate; they finally secured an increase to 230 million. The programme aims not only to showcase European education to the world, but also to promote intercultural dialogue and understanding between peoples.