Members of the European Parliament fear the EU’s Erasmus grant could be at risk, eyeing an extended budget for one of the world’s most successful student exchange programmes.
The EU's budget commissioner, Janusz Lewandowski, briefed the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday (25 October) over payment shortfalls for Erasmus.
On Tuesday (23 October), the European Commission tabled a remedial budget demanding further contributions from member states to safeguard the programme in the 2012 EU budget.
The EU executive is calling for a whopping €8.9 billion across the total budget to finish off the 2012 year, while earmarking some €180 million for the Life-Long Learning Programme, made up principally of Erasmus. Half of that amount, €90 million, is demanded for Erasmus (>> Read Commission Memo).
The European Commission says Erasmus will not run out of money before the end of 2012. But if the shortfall in the 2012 EU budget is not resolved, it says funds from the 2013 budget will have to be used to cover the gap.
"Faced with the prospect of a continuing shortage of funds, universities and colleges are likely either to reduce the number of places they make available for the second semester of the 2012-2013 year, or to reduce the level of grants," the Commission warns.
This, it adds, "is likely to mean that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds will not able to take part in the scheme" during that year.
The head of the Socialists and Democrats in Parliament, Hans Swoboda, criticised the attitude of governments trying to reduce the EU budget.
“Some of the countries where there are most students wanting to apply for the Erasmus programme are trying to cut the budget and that is absolutely not acceptable...especially in times of growing Euroscepticism," he said.
Swoboda said one of the most important symbols of European identity was at stake. “We risk saying to young people who want to be European, ‘sorry we do not have enough money’”.
The Erasmus Mundus programme provides funding for more than 230,000 students to study abroad in the EU as well as for work placements in enterprises, universities and co-operation projects.
Doris Pack, a German MEP, said governments were “at fault” and “not complying with their own commitments vis-à-vis the young people”.
MEPs had already expressed worries that this year’s Erasmus payment shortfall would be repeated next year during a plenary debate on the EU’s 2013 budget on Monday.
MEPs also expressed fears that cuts to Erasmus would place a heavy burden on students entering the workplace, who will have to pay back loans that would have once been covered by the grant.
“Students are already facing severe financial restrictions”, said French MEP Jacky Hénin. “In this condition, the worst thing would be to substitute the existing system with another system of loans that would drive students to enter professional life with a supplementary financial burden on their shoulders.”
Many MEPs were quick to remind governments that ‘EU funds’, especially educational grants, eventually make their way back to member states.
Polish conservative MEP Marek Henryk Migalski said: “Some say money is wasted but money spent on Erasmus is not wasted, it’s money invested.”
“All of us, especially the Commission, but also Council, should ensure there is money in the Erasmus pot”, Migalski said.
The show of strength from MEPs will offer a ray of hope to prospective exchange students. The EU legislative will have to rubberstamp the proposed remedial budget before it is presented to member states in Council.
The Cypriot vice-minister for European affairs in Council, Andreas Mavroyiannis, said the Cyprus presidency would attempt to safeguard the grant.
“The Life-long Learning Programme, including the Erasmus Programme, is one of the most successful European programmes in the educational sector” he said, adding “therefore let me assure you that the financing … in 2012 and 2013 will not be put in danger”.
French MEP Alain Lamassoure (European People's Party), chairman of the Parliament budgets committee, said: "The Commission has estimated the sum of financial claims by member states' administrations, like the national European Social Fund agencies and the regional authorities. When I read the initial reactions of some finance ministers, I wonder whether they even know that the total amount of the bills is based on requests from their own countries."
Slovakian Socialists & Democrats MEP Katarína Neveďalová said: "If we want Erasmus to be properly funded, we have to be prepared to invest in training, in education. We need to make sure we don't end up with a repeat of this situation. It is a matter of credibility for the EU institutions."
Giovanni La Via (EPP, Italy), the MEP in charge of compiling the Parliament report on the 2013 budget, said: "The bills for 2012 have to be paid in 2012. If no extra money is added, it will have negative consequences for the budget in 2013. We have to avoid postponing problems from one year to the next. Otherwise we will find ourselves in a similar situation next year, which is bad news for students, researchers and small companies".