Nearly 253,000 students received Erasmus scholarships during 2011-2012, a rise of 7.5% on the previous year, receiving an average of €252 per month of European funds.
This meant that since its inception in 1987 three million students have received a grant from the programme, which has increased in size every year except for one (1996-1997). Demand also exceeded the availability of grants in most countries in 2011-2012.
More than 46,000 academic and administrative staff also received a grant to teach or train abroad in the last year.
Vassiliou, the European commissioner responsible for education and youth, said the record figures showed the enduring popularity of the programme, adding that Erasmus was “more important than ever” in times of economic hardship and high youth unemployment.
“The skills and international experience gained by Erasmus students make them more employable and more likely to be mobile on the labour market,” she said in a statement.
Vassiliou said the number of students choosing a job placement had grown by 18% compared to the previous year, with one in five now opting for work over academic experience.
The Commission has sought to reverse the EU’s downward youth employment trend, which stands at of 23.9% in the eurozone, with a series of measures, including an €8 billion Youth Guarantee to offer the under-25 a job, an apprenticeship or higher education within four months of leaving secondary school.
The EU has also agreed on a revamped "Erasmus Plus" programme for launch in January 2014 aimed at providing opportunities for four million, mostly young, people to study, train or volunteer abroad during the years 2014-2020, the duration of the EU’s next long-term budget.
Vassiliou expects the programme to receive €14.5 billion financing over the period, 40% more than the current EU learning programmes.
One area it will target is higher education, with emphasis on masters' degrees.
“One innovation under the new programme is that we have the new loan guarantee facility for a complete master degree abroad It is the first time … because masters degrees are very sought by employers and we don’t have anything else in order to give the possibility to young people to go abroad for this master’s degree,” she told reporters in Brussels.
Depending on the course, the EU will supply loans of either €12,000 or €18,000 with favourable terms, including low interest and repayment after employment.
A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study said that people who had completed higher education were most resistant to the economic crisis, with relatively lower unemployment levels, regardless of age.
Erasmus Plus will combine into one more system the current medley of initiatives under the EU’s so-called Lifelong Learning Programme, made up of Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Comenius and Gruntvig, as well as other international programmes such as Erasmus Mundus, Youth in Action and Edulink.
The programme will also include education and training in sport for the first time.