Erasmus Programme: Opportunity or Waste of time?

The EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) is an EU student and academic staff exchange programme that has been in existence since 1987. It’s named after the Dutch philosopher Erasmus, who spent much of his life travelling across Europe to increase his knowledge, gain new insights into the world at large and expose himself to unfamiliar cultures.

The programme aims to encourage cross-border cooperation between European Union academic institutions and to expand the practice of international studying. To join the Erasmus programme students must be registered at a higher education institution; all the administration is carried out between the sending and receiving institutions on the students’ behalf. 4,000 institutions across 33 different countries take part in the scheme funded by European Union.

According to the European Community website, the academic year 2012/2013 year marked a significant milestone for the scheme. Since its start, 3 million students have participated as have over 350,000 staff members.

I’m one of those 3 million students. During the 2012/2013 academic year, whilst studying for my Masters in Management and Governance, I spent 11 months at the University of Valencia (Universitat de Valencia) in Spain, away from my home institution the University of Siena (Università degli Studi di Siena) in Italy. I’d always dreamed of living in Spain, a country I’d admired because of its people and weather. For a while, that dream became a reality.

From my very first day in Spain, I was never disappointed. Valencia is a friendly city, easily navigable by public transport or bike-sharing. It’s by the sea and has warm weather, just like my hometown. The people are amazing, always cordial and devoted to making a stranger feel welcome in their city. Every day I lived there was filled with a mixture of happiness and surprise.

Taking part in the Erasmus scheme is an adventure. It’s a great way to leave your daily routine behind and jump into an immersive experience full of tumultuous emotions. It changes your lifestyle and exposes you to a new culture, which leads to you becoming more open-minded. But the academic side should not be forgotten. It was the first time I had studied alongside foreign students from all over Europe and that, too, broadened my thinking.

Andrea Sironi, an Erasmus Alumni and current rector of Bocconi University (Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi) in Milan, states:

“As my first international experience, my Erasmus year allowed me to understand the value of studying and working in an international environment. My advice to future Erasmus students is to take full profit of the international experience and not focus on the academic side only.”

Its wide adoption throughout Europe notwithstanding, the Erasmus programme has not become a major part of UK university life. According to official figures taken from the European Commission, the UK is one of the top receiving countries, but it is not present among the top sending ones.

I asked one of the few British Erasmus friends I’ve made in the last couple of years whether they could shed some light on this low uptake. She’s studying Languages at Birmingham University, which is how I met her abroad on the Erasmus programme. She said that British people usually link Erasmus only with the opportunity of learning a new language. So, aside from those studying languages, British people do not feel Erasmus is worth it, since English is the official business language spoken all over the world. Moreover, the rigidity of the academic system makes it tougher to spend a year abroad on Erasmus, unless they have to do it for their degree. British people are more willing to go abroad to work, and not to study.

Birkbeck College is a newbie to Erasmus, at least for students. It’s only been a few years since the university opened its doors to full-time students. Before that, it was London’s part-time evening university, famous for its working part-time students. 2014/2015 is the first year they’ve started to offer an Erasmus Programme.

They are now partnered with Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam). Birkbeck, thanks to the individual effort of Professor Rodgers, lecturer in Media Theory, was able to find an agreement between his Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and the Dutch institution.

He was encouraged in doing so by undergraduate students seeking exchange opportunities abroad. Sybil, the first outgoing Birkbeck Erasmus student, has been able to study outside the UK. The same worked for Dirk, Nikki and Ilya, Dutch students incoming at Birkbeck, who wanted to have a more affordable experience studying abroad.

Whenever programmes such as this start, there is noticeable room for improvement. Professor Rodgers had to work it out all by himself, without an official presence of Birkbeck. Sybil, the English girl now in Amsterdam, says how much the International Office of her receiving institution helped her in getting through the academic studies; They gave her a “buddy,” someone to help her in getting to know Amsterdam. No such support was provided to the Dutch Erasmus students here at Birkbeck. Since I do not believe an International Office exists*, they could only deal with Professor Rodgers.

The students told me they would have preferred an awareness of the scheme so that professors could offer help with the student tools such as Moodle, My Birkbeck Profile and so on. But they understand that they are ‘pioneers’ and that things will improve in the future as participation grows. Professor Rodgers himself told me that it has to be a bottom-up process, starting from students asking and encouraging their academics to be allowed such opportunity. Birkbeck’s vision is changing, and they are slowly starting to understand that as more full-time students enrol in their courses, the Erasmus Programme will need to be part of it and officially recognised.

My conclusion is that Erasmus is a valuable opportunity. The ability to participate in a funded experience abroad during your studies, and experiencing both the academic and social sides of a culture, is priceless. Even though some British students already enjoy an international environment in their home institutions, it seems that others are starting to understand the profound value it can have, and the enrichment it can provide.

The Erasmus programme makes you feel like a European citizen, giving a good experience and without the somewhat superficial view we get from high school two-week foreign exchange programmes. It is an experience that stays with you forever.

*Editor's note: Birkbeck has an International Office as well as the International Student Administration (ISA). For general queries, contact the International Office at international-office@bbk.ac.uk, and for information post-enrolment, contact the ISA at isa@bbk.ac.uk.

Antonio Di Cianni

Antonio is a 26-year-old Italian student studying for his MSc in Sport Management and the Business of Football at Birkbeck. He started the course in September 2014.

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