Erasmus students in limbo about losing grants from COVID lockdown

epa08291735 View of an empty classroom at Barcelona University's Bussiness School after Catalan regional authorities suspended all classes, in Barcelona, northeastern Spain, 13 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/QUIQUE GARCIA]

Some 65% of the students who are in Erasmus exchange programmes but subject to confinement measures do not yet know if they will keep or return the grant that was disbursed for their studies, while 7% said they will not get any, according to a report by the Erasmus Students Network (ESN).

According to the Student Exchanges in Times of Crisis, a research report on the impact of COVID-19 on student exchanges in Europe, almost two-thirds of respondents do not yet know what will happen with their grants and are trying to get information from universities or national authorities.

The survey showed that 11% will keep the full amount of the grant, while 13% will keep part of it. Around 7% replied that they will not be able to keep any part of the grant at all, having to return the financial support due to the cancellation of their mobility. The situation of the remaining 4% of respondents was not clear.

The report also showed 37.5% of the students experienced at least one major problem related to their exchange. “The most common one was related to the loss of transport to return home, followed by problems with accommodation and access to basic needs such as food and sanitary products,” the report said.

Concerning the impact on class schedule, some 51% of the students whose mobility continued have moved to online classes while a third moved partially online or partially postponed classes.

An opportunity to apply again

Kostis Giannidis, president of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), argued that students should be able to receive the full amount of grant regarding their period of studies. “Many students were forced to go back to their countries and because of that, universities decided not to conceive the full amount of grant”.

However, “students still have to face a lot of costs, like accommodation, for example. Many had to sign six months contracts so, even if they left earlier, they still have to pay rent”.

Another major concern at the moment is the Erasmus experience. Even if the students continue with their studies “this is not a real Erasmus. It is not the same doing the program remotely or via online courses, instead of meeting new people and contacting the culture of the country you chose, because this is the real Erasmus”, argued Giannidis.

While he agreed students should have access to online courses in order to continue their studies, he said they should be able to apply again for the European program, “having a kind of a ‘fast track’ option, not to face the bureaucratic process again”.

The ‘force majeure’ clause

“The European Commission recommends to higher education institutions and national agencies the usage of the ‘force majeure’ clause to address any situation of students on the ground, to prevent as much as possible the negative impact on the students themselves”, said Elena Tegovska, team leader at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture (DG EAC), during a webinar on the topic on 20 March.

She added that the implications of triggering this clause also applied to grants. “The European Commission will give higher education institutions as much flexibility as possible to prevent students from ending up in precarious situations”.

The flexibility is also seen as a way to help students who have returned to their home countries to finish their courses, given this is a circumstance beyond their control. The report underlines the importance of “ensuring equal access to online learning tools for students”.

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