The Erasmus student exchange programme is a success story for the EU. Figures released this month show a new record of almost 270,000 students benefitting from European Union support to study or train abroad in 2012-2013. Since its launch in 1987, more than three million students have traveled to study with backing from Erasmus grants.
Supporters say the programme not only gives students a chance to improve their education, but provides young people with the chance to broaden their outlook, discovering new countries and meeting new friends from around Europe and beyond. In December, EU governments agreed to boost the programme’s budget to €14.7 billion over the seven years up to 2020.
Yet there are changes. The usual grants currently running at an average of €272 per month will remain, but the new Erasmus+ programme will also include loans – guaranteed by the European Central Bank – for master’s students undertaking full-length courses in another country. They can run up to €12,000 for one-year degrees, €18,000 for two-year courses.
The decision was controversial. Critics say the loans will saddle students with debt before they even get on to the job market. Others however are supportive: contributor Panos wrote in to put the case for loans:
Substituting free education with government [or EU] loans is an excellent idea since it will increase the responsibility of the students, [and] will improve government and university economics.
On the other hand, Laszlo argues the EU should stick to a grant-based system to avoid burdening students with debt at the start of their adult lives. We put his comment to Doris Pack, a German Christian Democrat MEP before the European Parliament elections in May. This is her reply:
We have three parts of Erasmus. First, the Erasmus grant for going abroad for one semester or one year during the bachelor’s or master’s or PhD, with a small grant of around €200-€400. Then we said that for a lot of people it is still too expensive, so we give them a chance to do a whole master’s study in another country by offering them a loan they can take against a very low interest rate. They repay the loan in a “social” way: not one year after the studies, but they have much longer. This is an offer, not an obligation. Then we have a third offer: the former Erasmus Mundus, which means you can go to a third country, [such as in] Africa or South America, and there you receive a higher fee of around €1,500 – but this is a small part [of the programme]. The biggest part is the first, the master’s loans are only an offer that I am very much in favour of.
Katarína Nevedalová, Slovak MEP and Vice-President of the Party of European Socialists in the outgoing parliament, also responded to Laszlo’s comment:
Give us YOUR opinion. Is it a mistake to pile on debt for people still in study? Or will loans encourage financial responsibility in students? Does the state (and the EU) have an obligation to offer free higher education? Or should students eventually have to pay back what the taxpayer provides? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.