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ERASMUS … and then what ? Five proposals for a new European policy of education (Franck Biancheri, 2002)

The lost decade (Franck Biancheri, Director for Studies and Strategies, Europe 2020)


Recently, the European Commission has been celebrating its 1 million ERASMUS students. Romano Prodi has personally reverberated the event in an article underlining the programme’s success and launching some orientations for the future.


Being among those who made it possible for the ERASMUS programme to be adopted in Spring 1987, the programme’s results rejoice me: ERASMUS is indeed the one and only European programme to be famous among a significant number of European citizens, as Cedric Klapish has recently proved it with the success of his film “L’auberge espagnole”.


However, I do not share the Commission’s (and national education ministry’s) self-satisfaction as it is expressed by President Prodi in his interview or in the speeches delivered by the concerned services; on the contrary I think it is high time, after a decade was lost, to propose new orientations in this field and come back to the impetus from which came the original success of ERASMUS: methodological innovation, political audacity and faith in the actors’ dynamism (students and teachers – the only one likely to result in a momentum of financial means and to bring along a sustainable structural impact).


ERASMUS: initially an immense success carried by students and professors… progressively turned into a bureaucratic machinery benefiting less than 1% of the European students after 15 years


Let me be understood correctly: ERASMUS has been a programme of an extreme importance for the academic Europe, but its main utility is worn out since the beginning of the 90’s. 5/6 years after it had been launched, it had radically transformed the European academic systems, re-focussing our universities on intra-European exchanges, while in the 80’s they were all looking towards the United-States, and only towards the United-States.


Practically all the innovation carried along by ERASMUS was implemented from the very first years: the university-networks, the system of credit-transfers and the networks of European students. On all these aspects, ERASMUS has had an great structural impact; what should, I think, be the aim of a European programme (rather than an everlasting system of management of the resulting changes). Since the beginning of the 90’s, ERASMUS can be considered to have played its role, in a remarkably efficient way.


Otherwise, if we look at the student mobility it has directly produced, the figure of 1 million in 15 years does not speak in favour of a success but rather of a relative failure compared to the objective of 10% initially defined (10% over 15 years would bring us to the figure of 4 million students; moreover the 1 million students publicized by the Commission covers a region larger than the EU; in fact it corresponds to less than 1% of the EU student population).


If we try to evaluate the use of the programme according to its capacity to respond to the new challenges derived from its success as well as from the development of the European construction, then we face a complete failure: the programme, under its new name SOCRATES, has only managed in terms of innovation to transfer the original impetus from the hands of the students and professors (who had let it to the success we know) to those of the European, national and academic administrations (which drowned it into total immobility during the last decade).


The revenge of the national ministries of education – which did not want ERASMUS in the first place – and the race to the biggest financial package ran by the European Commission and Parliament, have progressively killed the momentum and the added-value first created by the programme.


At the beginning of the 90’s, a number of studies and analyses nurtured the national and European education circuits, highlighting the need to renew ERASMUS and to invent second- and third-generation programmes taking into account the major changes which occurred within both the EU and the European academic environment. But they were not listened to, and the internal game of powers only prevailed in the decision-making processes, resulting in a double-disaster :

1. the bureaucratisation of the whole process in favour namely of the national ministries of education. Having not managed to prevent the adoption of ERASMUS, they took their revenge afterwards, making sure so that it did not give birth to some ” dangerous ” European developments. (See: ERASMUS was most likely never to exist… (David Carayol, 2007))

2. a race to financial packages (in which the Commission and the Parliament played outbidding in the name of the ” youth “), completely disconnected the programme from any consideration of utility or efficiency. There are so many passenger-less offices and “pilote-projects”, so many experts fed from the SOCRATES programme, that the best thing to do is ignore its real efficiency.


The big paradox: the EU policy of student-mobility is both very elistist socially speaking, and incapable to train the trans-European elites the EU needs


Today, behind the seemingly impressive figure publicized of 1 million exchanged students in 15 years of European programmes for higher education, the reality is:


. that there is no democratisation of these policies: discovering the EU remains the privilege of a very small minority of students, most of the time coming from wealthy families (due to the weakness of the grants)

. that the EU is still unable to train in sufficient amounts its future elites for the various sectors of the European society: media, public administrations, companies, policy-making, education,… in all these fields there is a major gap between the needs in terms of European management/leadership/expertise and the human resources that are available. Most of the time the 6 month- to 1 year- exchange is a pleasant moment for the concerned student but it does not particularly prepare him to making/managing Europe.


As regards to democratisation, it is obvious that the responsibility of the Members-States is immense. Most of them do nothing serious (apart from some speeches and announcements) to introduce language- eaching in the primary level nor to generalise the broadcasting of sub-titled master-prints. This contributes significantly to deepen the gap between those who can easily consider going to a foreign university and those for whom there is serious linguistic obstacle.


As regards to the preparation of European elites, the responsibility is a collective one weighing over the whole system:


– some Member-States systematically opposed to whatever can question the “absolute control” of their own elite-training systems (mainly resulting in the fact that their best heads go and train to the US, where most of them stay)

– a European Commission and Parliament glued into out-aged rhetorics opposing training elites (mixed up with ” elitism “) and democratising (declined like a mantra), while in fact the two are intimately related. This added to the fact that the Commission Education DG has turned into the secretariat of the Council of Education Ministers, one can wonder if it is relevant to keep it into activity


A European policy of education without an ambition nor a pilot


Today, at the end of 2002, at a time when the EU enters a crucial period of transformation and adaptation to the coming decades, what about the future European education policy ? Not much, apart from two worthwhile initiatives (Erasmus World and the Bologna process) which unfortunately tackle very indirectly the two key-issues – democratisation of the access to Europe and preparation of the trans-European elites. We are peacefully heading towards one more version of ERASMUS, in the framework of a SOCRATES programme that is now so complicated that barely no one knows anymore what it is there for; disseminating exchange and mobility contracts with neighbour regions (South and East Mediterranean included), with no better requirement than the formal acceptability of the projects.


The use of all this seems restricted to the mere perpetuation of the system. This way a new cast of “professionals of the European education programmes” is given birth to thanks to a significant part of the programmes’ funds, and fill in a variety of seminars and meetings between academic and management staff (David Lodge’s Small World, without the content).


At least Erasmus World tries to address the lack of visibility and attraction of Europe’s higher education, as opposed to the United-States’, and does not forget that the strength of Europe today lies in the interest of its students for the rest of world (contrary to the American students). But it is an action of limited scope in the framework of globalisation, which does not reflect a European will to position its higher education towards the 21st century nor to integrate to this project the global human resources who would want it. Moreover, very often these “new” European programmes only dress up some pre-existing bilateral exchanges, and therefore do not create new flows.


The “Bologna process” (a name that sounds like an Umberto Eco’s novel) in fact relates to a process of curriculum-harmonisation following a model similar to the Americans, nothing more, nothing less. If it can result in more trans-European mobility, fair enough. But it will first of all enable some greater global mobility, with no particular European added-value. It is more a matter of normalisation than an education project.


This situation is mainly due to the absence of pilot in this policy. And whatever may think lawyers and bureaucrats, what matters is not the question of the education as a common competence (Erasmus was created and implemented without it). What matters is the absence of an intellectual leadership and the sterilisation of all genuine movement (students and teachers carrying new approaches and ideas) by the European and national institutions, some (the Commission and Parliament) by fear of their programme management being criticized, some (the national education ministries) by fear of some European developments questioning their national habits.


For this reason, it seemed to me useful to give these details of what could be the great orientations of the European education policy in the coming decade. One thing is sure: one must break up from the last decade’s conformity which has postponed the preparation of our European human resources (both citizen- and professional-wise). This break-up will require to reconsider all the decision-making processes and operators currently prevailing but now mostly obsolete.


One last element should be kept in mind : it is important that the project of European constitution mentions that the ” access to the European dimension ” is an important aspect of each citizen’s educational process. There is no other way to encourage the emergence of a European citizen. Without an adequate education, law is an empty skeleton … and the European citizen will remain a purely national citizen with European rights and duties; a sort of cocktail no one would want for the future of the European construction.


Five proposals for a new European policy of education by 2010

-> Three big orientations for a European higher education policy and two central proposals for primary and secondary education

-> Three big orientations, each of them based on a simple instrument and capitalizing on the ERASMUS structural output :


A. Fostering a real democratisation of the access to Europe by enabling 500,000 students per year to have join the European dimension for 20 million euro


Democratisation requires the capacity to mobilize a representative proportion of the target: here 12 million students in the EU (15 million, candidate-states included). Such a large access to Europe cannot be implemented in the current academic environment (it would result in the explosion of our academic systems). It is therefore from outside the curricula that the student population must be approached. Access to Europe is mainly a matter of discovery, experiencing personally that the other Europeans no longer are foreigners. The main dimension is not an academic one, but a citizen, human and cultural one. Given the size of the target, the unit-cost must be low. Student associations and networks are the only “portal” making it possible for such a democratisation to take place. Them only, via their congresses, seminars and projects, can enable a large number of European students to discover other Europeans at a very low cost. For instance, in 15 years, the main European student networks put together (AEGEE-EUROPE, AIESSEC, ELSA, BEST, ESIB, …) have allowed more students to discover other Europeans than has the ERASMUS programme in the same period of time… and with a global support of a few million euro (vs a few billion for ERASMUS). Today, besides these organisations, dozens of European student networks and projects try to develop, representing hundreds of thousands direct European interactions every year, often more educative than the experience as “foreign student” for a few weeks.The tool for this democratisation simply consists in providing a large scale support to the development and multiplication of European student networks, associations and projects, by creating a very transparent funding system with 4 levels of subvention (for a simplified and decentralised management) in relation with the amount of students concerned :


  • 5,000 Euro
  • 10,000 Euro
  • 20,000 Euro
  • 50,000 Euro


The aim is to reach the figure of 500,000 students/year approached via events ranging from 3 to 15 days (conferences, seminars, projects…). The total cost could approximate 20 million euro per year.


B. Training the future European elites thanks to the integrated curricula : 20,000 senior executives for 100 million euro per year


A 6 month- or 1 year-stay does not prepare for a future ” Euro-decision maker “, whatever the sector may be. When it comes to management, the best institutions have shown the way: the integrated curriculum, i.e. a degree obtained after completion of a cycle, each year, in a different country. The decision cannot be a top-down process (Commission or Ministries). It should come in accompaniment of initiatives conducted by the university/school in partnership with regions or companies (namely in the field of management and technology). The “Academic AIRBUS” projects developed by the Groupe des Belles Feuilles, are in this line as they intend to associate universities, companies and the public sector.


The financial weight of this crucial orientation could amount to 100 million euro/year for a goal of 20,000 students concerned each year. Examples of such curricula are sufficiently numerous nowadays to disseminate rapidly if the financial motivation is there.


C. Enriching the national/regional education with some European inputs


It is useful to maintain the orientation consisting in the enrichment of the academic process based on some European input (3 month- to 1 year-stays abroad). This main added-value of ERASMUS today, should only represent a relatively weak part of the new European education policy. This component should first and foremost lean on the universities themselves and the national/regional grant-systems. It should be stimulated in a very limited way by the European level because it the most ancient and the less useful collectively speaking (for the European construction). It should merely aim at complementing the existing grants, namely in the case of low-income students. It would then add a social dimension to a general policy otherwise implemented at other levels.


As to the global dimension, it would be added inside each of the three orientations, some amounts being specifically allocate for actions between the EU and the rest of the world (like for example the Erasmus World instrument which can only develop properly on the basis of real European integrated curricula, the only ones by nature likely to attract American, Asian or South-American universities).


The two recommendations for primary and secondary education


Even though I am convinced that in the coming years the utmost priority of European education is the higher education, there are two important things to be done at the level of primary and secondary education :


1. generalizing the teaching of a foreign language from the age of 7/8 and making the Member-States and regions directly responsible for the implementation of these policies.

The EU could provide some support for a three-year period of time (to be evaluated then) for the set up of a wide-ranging ” exchange programme ” of language assistants. The Internet would play a very useful role so that the demand meets the offer; no need for a new programme. And the European Parliament could usefully ask Eurostat to produce each year a ” hit-parade ” of language education at the primary level (by region or State). I am certain our fellow-citizens would be greatly interested by this sort of information… and that it would result into some very positive increase of awareness, namely among the decision-makers concerned.


2. supporting the insertion inside the secondary level national history manuals of “comparative visions ” of the great European historical events.


Presenting simultaneously each of our different countries’ respective visions of the same major events in which they confronted, would significantly prove the added-value brought by the fact of being European. No need to re-write a politically-correct history; no need to invent anything. It is enough to take what exists in our neighbours and to compare it on a few big events. Indeed, being French and becoming aware that in Belgium the armies of Louis the XIVth are remembered as those who destroyed the Brussels’ Grand-Place, or in Germany as those who killed thousands of people in the valley of Heidelberg, is a useful apprenticeship of the history of Europe. And, in my case, just a few lines added to my history manual would have been enough for me to learn when I was 13/14 together with my hundreds of thousands fellow-pupils, rather than at 25 while working with a few dozens of European students.


Franck Biancheri, Director for Studies and Strategies, Europe 2020 – 24/10/2002


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