Multi-speed Erasmus: economic inequalities and higher education opportunities

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Europeans participate in the Erasmus scheme and take part in an academic and cultural exchange that goes on to influence their careers and lives. Plenty of youngsters remain partially excluded from it however.

Multi-speed Erasmus: economic inequalities and higher education opportunities_62cca2f596e3c.jpeg
Multi-speed Erasmus: economic inequalities and higher education opportunities_62cca2f596e3c.jpeg

© Kavun Halyna/Shutterstock

Multi-speed Erasmus: economic inequalities and higher education opportunities

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Europeans participate in the Erasmus scheme and take part in an academic and cultural exchange that goes on to influence their careers and lives. Plenty of youngsters remain partially excluded from it however.

© Kavun Halyna/Shutterstock

In its almost-thirty-five year history, some ten million citizens have benefited from one of the European Union’s most successful schemes, an example of integration in a continent that, at least until the onset of the pandemic, had brought down borders for many. Yet this exchange continues to be out of reach for poorer students, those students from poorer countries and those who are carers or in need of care.

Visualization by Laura Martín, Rocío Márquez, Fernando Anido, Luis Rodríguez

“We have problems in reaching certain social groups, especially those students from vulnerable economic strata who cannot pay for their participation because there is not enough money at home”, explains Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport between 2014 and 2019. All sources contacted for this report agreed that the Erasmus programme, despite its undoubtable success, has a long way to go if it is to reduce this economic gap.

“There is a geographical problem as well. I would say that Southern and Eastern European citizens encounter more hurdles to participation in Erasmus owing to financial worries. There are poor students in other countries who face these difficulties but it is compounded in these parts of the continent”, adds Navracsics.

Over the course of 2019-20, the last year with available data, 831,865 students and teachers participated in some way in the Erasmus programme. El Confidencial and OBC Transeuropa have analysed this information in the framework of EDJNet using key economic indicators to find out the true social make up of the Erasmus programme. 

In short, we have studied data from some 200,000 exchange students who, in 2019-20, moved between the twenty-seven Member States of the EU, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Iceland, Liechtenstein and other countries taking part in the scheme.

61% of students doing degrees in the most economically-developed countries spent their Erasmus year in 2019-20 at universities in countries of a similar economic level.

In these same universities, 51% of students studying in an intermediate-level economy spent time studying away from their universities of origin. This percentage falls to 37% in the case of students from less advanced economies. 

That the mobility among groups of different economic levels is less common can also be verified at the regional level. There is a positive correlation between the purchasing power standards of the regions of origin and the ones where Erasmus students go, as shown in the chart below.

“The ideal is to have a diversity of destinations”, says Juan Rayón, President of the Erasmus Student Network, the organisation founded in 1989 that works with universities across Europe. “The disparity lies in the difficulty that Southern and Eastern European students face in studying in the North and West, whereas the return exchange is a walk in the park for students from wealthier countries. We have to facilitate this North-South exchange because there is an important lack of understanding between North and South. For an Italian to go to Sweden or Finland, it’s a huge shock”.

This is not a bogus observation. The Erasmus programme is divided into three tiers of participating countries based on their cost of living. The highest level contains the Nordic countries and Ireland, among others; in the middle level is France, Germany and the Netherlands, but also Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal; in the lowest level is Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania and Czechia.

Following this criteria, Erasmus distributes economic aid to its students accordingly. Until last year, the going rate for grants was between €250 and €450 according to how your country of destination lined up with your country of origin and what tier both were in. From this year, Erasmus grants will range between €200 and €600.

“A student who studies at a different European university for a semester receives around €1,500. What can they pay for with this? A return ticket (if they want to come home at Christmas, this complicates things even more). At best, they’ll get two months’ accommodation with the rest. They’ll still need to pay for another three months after this. If they go for a year, they’ll receive around €3,000. That’s ok. But is it enough to live in a European country for eight or nine months? Not really. The Erasmus grant is supplemented by student grants and loans in countries of origin, but it is still not enough to enable the poorest students to study abroad”, states Màrius Martínez, Vice Rector of International Relations at Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB). 

There is also extra help at hand for students from the outermost regions of Europe or those from less favourable surroundings, something that is becoming more and more important within the programme. Yet student organisations have doubts about the structure of these grants and call for more transparency, something that is also being asked for by universities. At the beginning of the latest academic year, the Erasmus+ Coalition denounced delays in grant payments. 

“There is no register where, as in civil society, one can see that a grant arrives safely with students. No one can see where national and regional money goes in the end”, says Rayón. 

“There is inequality in living standards across Europe and, because of this, we wanted to raise the amount of money going to Erasmus”, says Navracsis. The ex-European Commissioner believes that the latest rise from the European Council falls short: “We wanted to use these extra funds to correct those existing inequalities”, he laments. 

As well as Erasmus grants, a student will also receive either a grant or loan from their country of origin (at a national or regional level) or from universities. Yet these “contributions to study”, as they are defined in the programme, do not eliminate this inequality. “They do not cover all accommodation, transport and day-to-day living costs. They are always topped up by families and the students themselves. Everyone knows that, unfortunately, these grants do not cover all the costs of living abroad”, says Silvia Gallart, Director of International Relations and Cooperation at the Universidad Carlos III. 

How does Erasmus work?

The Erasmus scheme began in 1987, although there had been various pilot exchange programmes from the beginning of the 1980s. Since then it has kept growing, accommodating more and more students and teachers, coming to more countries and covering a greater number of academic levels and professions (as well as higher education, the scheme covers vocational training). Since 2014, the programme has been known as Erasmus+, encompassing a wide variety of existing exchange programmes. 

Its implementation is annual, though its funding is fixed every seven years through the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). In 2021, for example, a new framework began which will extend to 2027, raising funding for the scheme from €14.7bn in the last cycle to €26.2bn until 2027.

Erasmus establishes its own conditions, from financing to its aims. For the period that has just begun, social inclusion, green and digital transitions and supporting democratic participation among young people are the principles that should guide the actions of Member States and universities, explains the programme’s webpage

Within this framework, each university is free to sign agreements with whichever institution it wishes, as long as both agree to one condition: adopting the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE). “It is a form of accreditation that you have to present every time a new programme is launched” explains Silvia Gallart. “With a single application you say who you are as a university and what you want to do. It is your strategy within Erasmus”. 

Therefore, each year, universities must present a specific strategy for each action (such as student and personnel mobility at the university) which provides an indication as to how many grants their students will need. Depending on the availability of funding, the national agencies responsible for distributing funds can give them all or just a part of the total. This number of exchanges is the result of agreements signed between universities, which are normally based on reciprocal arrangements: the number of students leaving the university is generally equivalent to the number of students entering it. 

Different university ties 

Any university can form an agreement with any other. However, there is little incentive for a top-ranked university to reach an agreement with a lower-ranked university. “Different leagues have been formed. You have the Champions League, national leagues and then regional and local ones…and these rankings have created a type of hierarchy”, says Màrius Martínez. Universities always look upwards and those at the bottom of the pyramid are ignored. 

“If I say to Oxford that I want to sign an agreement in all areas of study, they will definitely turn me down”, says Gallart. “We are always looking to form arrangements with universities whose level of quality, excellence and accreditation is similar or even better than ours. But we have to consider lots of factors when offering these arrangements, not just the quality of a university”. Economic inequality is another factor at play: “I might be more interested in signing an agreement with a Romanian university, because it is a financially accessible country for our students, rather than, say, Maastricht (Netherlands) or Linköping (Sweden), because the cost of living is very high”, she explains. 

Martínez shares this opinion: “Cambridge has no need to sign agreements with us, they can go wherever they want”. The data backs up this claim: according to information published by the European Commission, in the academic year 2019-20, the University of Cambridge sent almost four times as many students and teachers (243) as it received (83). Yet UAB’s Vice Rector also points out some exceptions. Some universities are more attractive because of their location or their specialities even though they are not ranked among the best. “I’ll give you an example: there are universities in Chile and Argentina that have faculties in the Antarctic. They are not that high in the rankings, but they have certain special characteristics. These are unusual cases, though it also happens in Europe. It goes a small way in correcting the inequalities,” says Martínez. 

Spanish and Italian success

Spain and Italy are, along with Portugal, the countries that participate the most in the Erasmus programme. Although the countries themselves have a strong ranking, their universities, with a few exceptions, do not appear in the upper echelons of European rankings. Yet they are the countries that receive the most students within the programme. They also send the most, above other countries with greater populations. Many students move between the two countries: in the academic year analysed in this report, Italy sent more than 9,500 students to Spain and received 6,500.

Martínez sums it up: “[Spanish and Italian universities] Are well-placed: for weather, for culture, for a social life, for security…these are strategic factors that help Spain and Italy and attract students from higher-ranking universities. I consider my university a very good university, but I am also conscious of the fact that we are well-placed geographically. I want to use this to our advantage”. Along with Spain and Italy’s cultural and geographical benefits, the cost of living is also lower than it is in the North. 

The percentage of students in 2019-20 who studied through Erasmus was not significantly different between countries. Apart from Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, which are very small, Portugal, Slovenia and Lithuania stick out: more than 2% of their students studied at other universities in Europe, compared to between 1% and 2% in other countries. 

This does not mean that mobility is similar between the richest and poorest in Europe. For the richest, Erasmus is merely one of the available exchange programmes in Europe. For the poorest, it is the best and, for many, the only option. 

“In Europe, there is a huge gap between the different student exchange schemes”, explains Rayón. “In Nordic countries, everyone receives a grant just by virtue of being a student and they are paid through a payment plan that they design themselves. It depends a lot on the politics of empowerment. When students go on Erasmus, these grants continue and they do not depend on money from family. This is crucial if one is to successfully participate in student mobility”. 

Together, socioeconomic and academic inequality are the barriers to Erasmus access that are the hardest to overcome for people from low income families. One of the objectives of the programme is to reduce this gap and do whatever can be done to benefit the exchange and improve personal experience and career prospects. However, there is still lots of work to do, despite its success to date. “When we talk about European integration and cohesion, these social and economic aspects must be taken into account”, says Màrius Martínez. 

“This is the thing that we have to fix, one way or another. When we talk about education, we are always talking about its socioeconomic benefits and the changes it can make in people’s lives. It is annoying, it is uncomfortable, because we are highlighting weak spots in the system. We cannot simply keep perpetuating a system brimming with inequality and, if the economy keeps going the way it is going now, these inequalities will rise. The social ladder is not being strengthened. On the contrary, it is becoming more and more wobbly”, she concludes.


We used many different sources for this information. 

Data about Erasmus+ exchange programmes can be found using this link. The original dataset includes all exchange programmes in the academic year 2019/20, with information on fields of study, levels of study, the duration of study, institutions of origin and destination and their respective cities. 

In order to point out the economic dimension and differences between participating countries, we have compared data about exchanges with the average percentage of GDP (Purchasing Power Parity per inhabitant, PPA) at regional level NUTS2, published by Eurostat. This database allows for comparisons between significantly disparate economies and regions. 

The original database with Erasmus data does not contain information on the NUTS2 region in which academic institutions are situated. We found out the location of these institutions ourselves: first of all, we obtained the coordinates of the cities in which these institutions were located; then we identified the region through geocomputation. 

In order to obtain the coordinates of the cities with participatory Erasmus+ universities, we cross-referenced the data from the programme with that of the Local Administrative Units (LAU) though only around 50% coincided. Each academic institution submits its data autonomously, so that information is not standardised. This means that Erasmus databases often have city names that are written differently to the way that they are recognised by LAUs. Coordinates for the other half of cities were obtained in manual form, searching their latitude and longitude. 

Once the cities were geolocated and linked with their respective NUTS2 region, we cross-referenced them with PPA data from Eurostat, which allowed us to underline the economic inequalities that face students choosing to participate in the Erasmus scheme. However, given that PPA data is not available for every country, we had to exclude certain exchange destinations, such as Norway and North Macedonian, as a comparison was not possible. We also decided to exclude from our analysis doctorate exchanges, who already receive payment in the form of a salary or grant. 

Economic performance categorisations for each region (“more developed”, “in transition” and “less developed”) were obtained using the same categorisation used by the European Commission to create its cohesion policy. The “less developed” regions are those with a PPA under 75% of the EU average. “In transition” regions have a PPA between 75% and 100% while the “more developed” nations have a PPA above 100%.

Cost of living data and basic goods in European cities has been obtained through Numbeo.

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