On 31 January 2018, the European Commission published the external midterm evaluation report of the Erasmus+ programme. The report, “Combined evaluation of Erasmus+ and predecessor programmes”, is accompanied by the Commission’s own report and a staff working paper. They provide evidence for discussions both on the midterm review and on the development of the post-2020 programme. EUA finds that the external report provides extensive documentation and analyses, however some important findings are not even based on Erasmus+, but on its predecessor programmes.
The report confirms that the programme is highly valued, not only by beneficiaries and stakeholders, but also by European citizens as “one of the pillars of European identity”. The integration of several sectoral and regional programmes under the name of Erasmus+ has strengthened the “brand”, boosted its public recognition and enhanced its internal coherence – but it has also resulted in a one-size-fits-all approach that is difficult to cope with for some sectors.
According to the report, which was conducted by the consultancy company ICF, the programme is well on track in achieving its performance indicators, but has only partly improved its efficiency, compared to previous programmes. The report is also accompanied by the Commission’s own summary report of the main findings, as well as findings from national reports and the public consultation. It also makes proposals on how to improve the current Erasmus+ and design its successor.
The Commission commits to reducing bureaucratic burdens in both generations of the programme, by offering more user-friendly tools and procedures. EUA consulted its membership on Erasmus+ in 2016 and developed concrete recommendations for the future programme. Further simplification was a key issue for participants. EUA has recommended that Erasmus+ stakeholders should be systematically and consistently consulted on the improvement of the programme’s specific aspects and tools. EUA also proposes organising focus groups on specific administrative matters and/or features of the Erasmus+ programme.
Regarding the future programme, the Commission has announced that there will be fewer political priorities, in particular in those programmes supporting partnerships, and that it will “explore options for developing and financing at a larger scale (notably with the support of the European Structural and Investment Funds) those successful Erasmus+ projects that the have the potential to trigger structural reforms at national level.” This is probably also a response to the findings of the ICF-commissioned report indicating that the “blind spot is the quality of outputs produced under actions comparable to ”, thus not always contributing to innovation and system change.
This finding should to be considered with care, as it is based – as stated – on the predecessor programmes. At the time of the evaluation, the Key Action 2 and Key Action 3 programmes had just commenced and had not yet produced any outputs. While the previous programmes had “innovation” and “system change” as selection criteria, under Erasmus+, Key Action 3 was created for “system change” and the Key Action 2 Strategic Partnership distinguishes between projects for innovation, and projects focused on dissemination of good practice.
EUA has questioned this distinction, as the main purpose of the programmes is to enable exchange and cooperation, which – according to EUA’s own research – can have a strong impact on institutional development and the spread of innovative practices. In addition, not all Key Action 3 programmes achieve “system change”, whereas some Strategic Partnerships do. Innovation is, of course, a desirable outcome of any project, but while the pooling of talent and funding are key ingredients, there is no clear recipe or roadmap on how to achieve it. In any case, the general points made in the ICF-commissioned report are welcome, especially those on enabling projects to produce a smaller number of higher quality outcomes, and introducing application and selection processes that are more suitable to promoting innovation and system change.
The report also makes the point that higher education benefits from the current programme proportionally more than other sectors. The reason given is that unlike under the previous programmes, broader international cooperation and mobility, financed under development and neighbourhood budgets, have been integrated. Plus, a new international credit mobility component has been added - benefitting international students. In addition, higher education engages in cross-sectoral cooperation more frequently than other sectors, and the ICF-commissioned report recommends that “stronger cooperation between the sectors should be encouraged and that other sectors would benefit in particular from the innovation potential of cooperating with higher education.”
In its own report, the Commission announces that “as of 2018, new actions and activities will be launched under Erasmus+ with a view to increasing the number of mobility opportunities for school pupils, VET learners and apprentices.” But it also refers to its recent Communication “Strengthening European identity through education and culture” in which it “sets out a vision for boosting the future Erasmus+ for all categories of learners (including pupils, students, trainees and apprentices) and teachers, with the aim of doubling the number of participants and reaching out to learners from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2025.”
EUA would like to remind European policy makers that “demand greatly exceeds the funding available” (European Commission report) and this is not limited to the mobility actions, rather it especially concerns Key Action 2. EUA has pointed to the fact that success rates in parts of Key Action 2 are as low as 12%. Unsuccessful project submissions are often developed by consortia comprising at least four universities and other partners - resulting in a considerable waste of public funds.
Neither the ICF-commissioned report nor the Commission report make any explicit reference to the plans to create “European Universities” even though the pilot may be launched as early as autumn 2018.