The inequalities of the program that should unite Europe

The unequal distribution and access to Erasmus grants creates a gap between students that threatens the cohesion among European regions

The inequalities of the program that should unite Europe_62cca2edb35dc.jpeg
The inequalities of the program that should unite Europe_62cca2edb35dc.jpeg

(© sondem/Shutterstock)

The inequalities of the program that should unite Europe

The unequal distribution and access to Erasmus grants creates a gap between students that threatens the cohesion among European regions

(© sondem/Shutterstock)

Of the four months that Cristina spent in London on Erasmus, two were spent sharing a bed with a friend from Madrid. “I almost ended up sleeping in a converted living room with a dividing curtain had it not been for a friend who went and left her room free”, she says of her experience between 2014 and 2015.

Claudia, from Granada, recalls how her diet and social life became much worse despite the financial efforts made by her parents to allow her to enjoy a few months of exchange study in Cambridge some fifteen years ago. 

Juan ruled out going when he saw that he would only receive €300 per month. “It was totally unfeasible. I wanted to go to England and I would have had to pick up various jobs, which would have prevented me from going to class”, he explains. 

The Erasmus programme was created to give the opportunity to live abroad to all European students. The reasoning was twofold: students would enrich themselves academically and gain valuable employment skills in the future and, at the same time, European cohesion would be reinforced by young citizens spending time in other countries across the continent. It tore down physical and cultural barriers and raised the potential for a more European future. 

Yet since it began thirty-five years ago, the programme has had a fundamental flaw: only those who can rely on economic help have been able to access the scheme, despite Erasmus’ grants. Having the money to add to the grants- or even just enough money to stop a student from having to work on exchange-, has created an inequality that has lain hidden in the scheme of more than ten million participants, as we aim to show. 

The European Commission is aware of this inequality, as the 2014-2019 Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Tibor Navracsics explains: “There is a huge gap between Member States that threatens to divide the EU and the rest and we have to reduce this gap”. 

Varying living standards between cities is hardly covered by different grants. There are only three categories of grants to classify countries with higher and lower living standards, as it is not properly adjusted for each destination. Yet the differences between European cities can be enormous. As you can see- and visualise in the graphic below-, a simple bus or train ticket is three times more expensive in Eindhoven (the Netherlands) than it is in Sevilla (€4.27 compared to €1.40 in Sevilla). A meal at McDonald’s will set you back €4.40 in Hungary compared to €12.60 in Iceland, an increase of 184%.

This is how prices change according to your origin and destination

Table by Laura Martín, Rocío Márquez, Fernando Anido, Luis Rodríguez.

According to the Social Inclusion & Engagement in Mobility study, 43% of students from low income backgrounds said that they worried about finances or losing their current job when considering an exchange compared to 34% of those from higher income backgrounds. “We identified three different barriers that make Erasmus exclusive: institutional, attitude and social”, adds Juan Rayón, President of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), that analyses this problem.

As for social barriers, the first big cleft of inequality comes from the financial power of different countries and regions. 53% of students interviewed for the study cited in this article recognised that a major barrier to participating in Erasmus was that the grant covered- at most- three quarters of the total costs. This figure rises to 75% among students interviewed from poorer backgrounds. Only 19% said they were able to cover the shortfall.

Another big problem is when the money actually arrives. 82% of respondents said that they needed the grant before the start of the course in order to cover costs associated with moving to a different country or city. Nevertheless, the norm in most countries and regions, including the majority of Spanish autonomous communities, is that the grant arrives months after having arrived at the destination country. On some occasions, it can even arrive when the course has already ended. 

This initial payment means that many cannot access the Erasmus experience. “My family could not cover the costs of a flight or a flat…studying in Madrid was already expensive even with a national grant”, explains Isabel, a communications worker who stayed in Spain without going on Erasmus while she studied Journalism and Audiovisual Communication. “I am from Jaén and the financial crisis hit us hard: my father was out of work and I have a brother, so it was impossible”. 

According to a questionnaire created for this article for former students who had the opportunity to go on exchange, 90% of participants confirmed that the grant did not cover their costs. Of these, 64% said that their grant only covered 30% of costs, 27% were able to pay around half and only 9% could pay 70%. One hundred people completed the questionnaire, of whom 90% were Spanish. 

When unable to cover the full costs, 88% said they sought financial help from parents and 44% had to dip into their savings. Another 20% were working while on exchange and only 3% said that they had to take out a loan. 

Fewer employment opportunities

Where you come from and where you go most affect your stay. Students from wealthier countries find it much easier to complete exchanges in poorer countries. This means that students from Southern and Eastern Europe are disproportionately affected by Erasmus’s inequalities. 

In response to our questionnaire, 42% of participants said that they would have chosen destinations where the grant covered their entire costs as opposed to 54% who said they would not change their choice. Half of respondents said that their rent was more expensive than in their university town of origin, 31% said it was cheaper and 16% considered the rent around the same. The costs of a social life had similar response results (48%, 28% and 19% respectively).

Grants come, on the one hand, from the EU and, on the other, from the Member State, to which autonomous communities and universities can add. Countries are meant to cofinance grants, though this does not always mean that they do. “There are big differences in the criteria of each country and region. There are countries where the grant is essentially a European one, others where it is national and others where many universities contribute from their own funds”, points out Rayón in relation to what he considers to be the biggest institutional barrier. “It is a European scheme and so most of the funds should come from the EU, but other institutions should be doing more. That is what happens in Andalucía, which gives generously to students despite lower rent prices in the region”. 

Within Spain there are big differences in how students are able to study on Erasmus as regards financing. Madrid and Castilla La Mancha do not supplement the Erasmus grant at all. Andalucía, however, can give around €500 on top of the European grant, something that directly increases the mobility opportunities of Andalucians in Europe. “I think it’s pretty unfair that your grant total ends up being determined by which autonomous community you live in and students have told us of wildly varying sums between regions of origin. I remember having a friend from Córdoba who received double what I got”, explains Marta, a madrileña who studied in Paris through Erasmus in 2011-12. “I had to sublet a room from the real tenant, who lived there with their kids, because the €200 grant meant I could not afford any other room”. 

In other autonomous communities, like Castilla y León, the grant total is a complete lottery, because it is only distributed once it is known how many students will need one. “It means you can’t plan ahead”, says the ESN, who observe periodic studies into exchange inequality between Spanish autonomous communities. 

Until 2020, the total budget that Spain dedicated to Erasmus grants was the same as it was in 2010, despite the number of exchange students increasing by 40%. “The sums just do not add up”, says Miguel Hernández, responsible for Spain within ESN. “This year, the budget for grants has risen by €10m- from €30m to €40m- and we are glad of that, but we are also asking that it does not stop there. These days, grants aren’t enough in the vast majority of cases and if it isn’t made more accessible for everyone, then Erasmus will become an elitist jaunt: only the wealthiest will be able to go on exchange and perhaps those who most need to spend time among other cultures and enjoy new experiences, will not be able to do it”, he says. 

“If someone needs to work in order to pay for their studies, then they cannot study on Erasmus. Policies around grants- and that includes all student grants, not just Erasmus-, shamefully neglects many vulnerable people”, explains Màrius Martínez, Vice Rector of International Relations at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. “There are families that can easily pay for university tuition, and paying €300 or €400 per month so that their child can study on exchange is not a problem. It’s the middle class who get most of our grants”. 

“It’s a type of class jealousy and frustration because, for many who talk about cost reductions and more, they would have to have a certain element of financial support and when their family lives on the breadline, taking on a cost like this is a huge burden which, in my case, prevented me from going”, explains Juan, who wanted to go on Erasmus exchange in 2003, when he was in his third year. 

Until now, making Erasmus more inclusive and dedicating efforts and funds to poorer students was only a recommendation, and only a handful of universities and regions had dedicated schemes for providing assistance to these students. For the next financial period, it will be mandatory to have available financial assistance routes in all Member States, explains the ESN. 

It is not only the financial constraints of a low-income background that can limit your ability to study on exchange, poorer students are also generally less predisposed to consider an exchange, owing to the perception that these programmes have. This is the third barrier; perception. “It is important that students see themselves as possible participants in the scheme: however many avenues are open to them, if they believe that it isn’t for them, then they won’t even take a look”, explains Rayón. 

According to a study of graduate students in 2014-15, 4.8% of students whose parents have professional class jobs participated in Erasmus, while the figure falls to 3.2% among those whose parents have ‘blue collar’ jobs. 

Furthermore, students from low-income backgrounds often study at universities with fewer financial resources compared to the more prestigious ones. “That’s why we are asking that certain universities with more students from low-income backgrounds be given additional funds”, says the ESN. 

To try to correct these inequalities, the commission responsible for the Erasmus programme asked that its budget for the next Multiannual Financial Framework, between 2021 and 2027, be doubled in order to bring about a financial package that has a bit more breathing room to help students on a case-by-case basis. In the end, the increase was a little less than double, rising to €26.2m (up from €14.7m between 2014 and 2020). 

This will leave us a little closer to solving the key disadvantage for those who are unable to study on exchange: a missed opportunity for professional skills. ”If a student cannot participate in the Erasmus scheme for social or economic reasons, then they will continue to have diminished opportunities in life. When we analyse the employability of students, it becomes clear very quickly that employers are more likely to hire someone with international experiences, and Erasmus is one of the best examples”, adds Navracsics. 

According to European Union data, those who participated in the Erasmus scheme have a 42% better employability rate and double the opportunity to change employers. Furthermore, 40% have been able to move to a different country after graduating, compared to 23% who did not study in another country. 

The barrier of disability

In the budget measures approved in the current MFF for Erasmus+ grants, there will also be a greater focus on students with a disability, who face very specific barriers to participation. 

According to the data, only 0.03% of disabled students participate in an exchange, despite making up 1.5% of the total number of students. 

Isabel Vidal is a part of that 0.03%. She needs a wheelchair to move around and someone to help her get up, get dressed and eat, though this did not stop her from studying for one semester in Newcastle in 2010. As well as a maintenance grant, the Erasmus programme takes into account a grant to pay for a carer to accompany a student on Erasmus, in this case a friend who was excited to share the experience. “I never met another exchange student with a disability. It is always a risk for a twenty year old to go on exchange, even more so if you have a disability like myself, but it was definitely worth it”. Now, grants provided to disabled students include costs like rehabilitation in the country of destination, as well as making sure that grants are clarified and better structured for this group who often find themselves isolated from the programme.

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