Should we mourn a UK exit from Erasmus?

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Image created by the Erasmus+ project Home Sweet Home

One consequence of the Brexit decision is that our educational institutions will at some stage have to withdraw from ERASMUS+, the European Commissions’s scheme for staff and student mobility. Or so says the Guardian, in a report that has been widely circulated – and lamented – on social media. The Guardian quotes Ceri Jones, formerly the Commission’s Director General for Education, describing the UK exit from ERASMUS+ as “a tragedy of staggering proportions for universities throughout the country”.

As usual, the reality is more complicated. First, although Guardian story describes ERASMUS+ as a scheme for university student mobility, it is of course much broader in its reach, encompassing schools, adult education and vocational training. Second, the UK remains part of the programme until the actually UK leaves the EU. Third, if and when the UK does leave the EU, its membership of ERASMUS+ (and other educational and research programmes) can continue, if the UK and rest of the EU so decide. Fourth, the UK can replace ERASMUS+ with new partnerships, but with different countries.

So hardly a “tragedy of staggering proportions”. Of course, continuing membership of EU programmes or the development of new exchange programmes will cost money. The simplest solution would be to use the resources currently allocated to ERASMUS+ to fund the new schemes. In practice, I imagine that a few Vice Chancellors (including those publicly lamenting the UK’s departure from ERASMUS+) will then start lobbying to have direct control over the funds, and then promptly switch it to other activities. But that’s no reason for not having exchange schemes.

My own preference would be the development of an entirely new exchange scheme. I’m not a great fan of ERASMUS+, mainly because it is yet another case of public funding being directed towards the most privileged. A HEFCE report in 2010 found that UK participants were “disproportionately young, female, white and middle-class, and are academic high-achievers”. A subsequent House of Lords enquiry reported that “students from ethnic minorities; with a disability; who were older; or who had parents from a non-professional background, were less likely to participate in the Erasmus programme”.

These are not new findings, of course. And neither is it surprising that an attractive but costly education opportunity appeals most to the socially and culturally best endowed. Nor is it surprising that part-time students, those with caring responsibilities, and those with best reason to be concerned about racism are largely excluded.Then there is the whole question of language competence, which in the UK is tightly tied to the school which you attend, which in turn is of course socially biassed towards the middle class.

The House of Lords report also confirmed that the European Commission had limited data about the effects of the scheme, and didn’t even know much about who took part in it and what they did. Again, this had been known for some years.

As I say, then, ERASMUS+ is deeply flawed. I found it something of a tragedy (though not of staggering proportions) that the European Commission did not take the opportunity to reform and modernise it. But then an organisation that is happy with the Common Agricultural Policy is unlikely to be dissatisfied with ERASMUS+.

Leaving ERASMUS+ offers some attractive possibilities. First, it allows for a bit of attention to equity and justice when designing new programmes. Second, it allows for an expansion of bilateral partnerships, which might differ by country rather than all taking a standardised shape. Third, it allows for an extension of partnerships beyond the limits of EU membership (though it could certainly include EU members). Fourth, we could rebalance the distribution of funding, so that it no longer strongly favours higher education.

All of which would be no bad thing. If we recall the intentions of the scheme’s founders, European student mobility was designed to foster a European identity. It seems to have done that rather successfully among one part of our population, but it did little or nothing for those who are the losers from globalisation. The consequences are with us now.

On being European. Or: where is Iceland?

I love Iceland, a country of majestic and sometimes awe-inspiring beauty. On most criteria, it is also a good place to live. In the OECD’s Better Life Index, Iceland ranks at the top in jobs and earnings, and above the average in social connections, subjective well-being, health status, environmental quality, personal security, and education and skills.

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A volcanic crater in the Grimsnes area, and cold enough in June for me to need a hat. Shortly after this photo was taken, though, a naked couple jumped in for a swim.

But is it European? This thought originally struck me during the global wave of laughter that greeted England’s humilating defeat by Iceland in the Euros. Don’t think I have the slightest interest in soccer, because I don’t. And I’m certainly not demanding that the Euros be replayed just because Iceland isn’t really European.

This isn’t a matter of EU membership. Europe is not identical with the European Union, and it is perfectly possible to be European and outside the EU.It’s ironic, though, that newspapers and others greeted England’s ignominious defeat with cries of “Brexit2”, conveniently forgetting that Wales was still in the tournament while Iceland had never been in the EU.

Then I remembered visiting the area around Þingvellir (or Thingvellir), a marvellous national park that includes a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This means that Rejkyavik, and therefore most of Iceland’s population, live in America rather than Europe.

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Not that this geological argument carries much weight with Icelanders, who like to think of themselves as Europeans and definitely not Americans. That got me brooding on why they might think of themselves in this way. And why so many other nations seem to be really keen to enjoy such symbolic markers of Europeanness as – wait for it now – the Eurovision song contest.

I enjoy a bit of pedantry; it can be a lot of fun. In this case, though, the question of Iceland leads me to ask what we mean when we say we are ‘European’, and who we then define as the non-European. The non-European unperson can be the refugee facing the enormous steel fences that Europe (= EU) is erecting along its borders, or the supposedly uneducated and insular Sun-reading cultural dopes who voted for Brexit.

The ‘European’ by contrast is cultivated and cosmopolitan. In a piece of desperately bad timing – or good, depending on your point of view – one academic published a piece in mid-June that celebrated the European (=EU) student mobility programmes as the modern Grand Tour.Well, Erasmus+ schemes certainly take the most privileged full-time, young, white undergraduates, though that wasn’t what he meant to pount out.

This world view rather neatly encapsulates a certain condescending mindset, which celebrates the cultural and educational construction of a cosmopolitan elite, the winners of the Euro-globalisation race. By contrast, the ‘other’ – the loser from globalisation – is constructed as brutish, stupid, and hopelessly provincial.

 

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Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

Mensa Uni Koeln

Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.

 

 

Student mobility and social inequalities

We’ve known for a number of years that international student mobility programmes tend to increase social inequalities. One recent analysis of patterns of study abroad reasonably concluded that while a number of factors are at work, including sometimes strongly held parental ideas, there is no doubting the importance of access to financial, cultural and social capital. And the same study shows that a period of study abroad has a measurable and positive impact on life chances.

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Infographic from Campus France

I was reminded of this research recently by seeing a French infographic on Twitter. Reporting a survey of outwardly mobile students from France, the authors noted that international student mobility continues to be a key social marker, in terms of outcomes as well as participation.

In terms of participation, the authors found much higher levels of parental support among students from wealthier families, particularly where the parents themselves had gone to university.They didn’t even ask about ethnicity, disability or mature age study.

There was also more institutional encouragement and support in the elite institutions, with the least encouragement being reported by students in health studies. Language was a challenge: as English has become the global language of academic study, so it becomes more important to have studied in an environment where you can develop your English language skills. Finally, money was also an issue, with study abroad costing an average of €6,000 for a six month stay.

What this effectively means is that study abroad programmes such as Erasmus are selectively subsidising the most affluent and advantaged of the student population. Furthermore, the students who have participated in study abroad programmes then get a head start in competing for cosmopolitan positions, which reinforces their privileged position. The net contribution to social mobility is therefore negative.

Researchers have known about the regressive effects of mobility programmes for some time, and have drawn them to the attention of policy makers, who have done precisely nothing to change the situation. Europe’s education policy makers and university leaders alike view Erasmus and similar programmes as a great success, and take every opportunity to say so. This latest French study adds to a body of evidence which ought to make us all ask a few hard questions about what values these programmes represent, and what aims they should be seeking to serve.

 

The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.