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Erasmus+ and the disadvantaged student: fault lines and hope

The Erasmus+ Programme prescribes affirmative action in favour of disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, it works much less effectively than the European Commission intends. Howard Davies discusses a study commissioned by the European Commission and conducted by EUA that identifies the weaknesses and makes recommendations for the International Credit Mobility programme.

Few people dispute that certain social groups are under-represented in higher education. Access to mobility programmes is skewed in favour of those who suffer no disadvantage.

Widening participation is therefore high on the agendas of the Bologna Process and the European Union. So how does the Erasmus+ Programme tackle the issue of disadvantage? Its intentions are excellent, but its achievement leaves much to be desired.

This is particularly true where Partner Countries are concerned. The Erasmus+ Programme Guide proposes a generous definition of disadvantage, covering the entire spectrum of individuals and groups who should rightfully be protected from discrimination. To support them, the Guide prescribes affirmative action: “For students from Partner Countries, the first criterion for selecting students will be academic merit, but with equivalent academic level, preference should be assigned to students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds [my emphasis] (including refugees, asylum seekers and migrants).”

Implementation, however, is another matter. In reality, the impediments are serious and numerous.

It cannot automatically be presumed that national legislations will recognise the catalogue of disadvantages set down in the Programme Guide. Even in respect of something as widely acknowledged as physical disability, there can be no expectation that it will be defined and addressed in similar ways. Institutions may not be equipped to deal with learning difficulties. Ethnic and religious minorities may not be acknowledged. And at the far end of the recognition spectrum, issues such as sexual orientation may be passed over in complete silence.

The official perception of disadvantage in the Partner Countries (and sometimes also in the Programme Countries) is patchy. National metrics do not align country-by-country and supra-national data is unreliable or uncollectable.

In these circumstances, there is no way that disadvantaged students can be treated equally in all participating countries. After all, who can reliably identify, count and support them? The coordinating host institution in the Programme Country typically defers to the sending institution in the Partner Country. But the sending institution might be legally or administratively unable to prioritise.

One possibility is that the disadvantaged students self-declare. But this is little more than theoretical. It assumes that students are aware of the opportunities afforded by the Programme Guide. It assumes that no stigma attaches to their particular form of disadvantage. It assumes that they are ready to assert their right to prioritisation in the face of potential resentment by their advantaged peers. All this is a lot to ask.

The criterion of prioritisation, all matters academic being equal is not well disseminated. Moreover, the procedures for selecting the mobile students are devolved to the project partnerships; they are not uniform. Some students are selected by the sending institution, some by the host, and others by a combination of the two. There may be good local reasons for this, but to the disadvantaged candidate the selection process may look, if not like a lottery, at least like something requiring an informed tactical application.

As a consequence, the instruments provided by Erasmus+ do not function as intended. The inter-institutional agreements do not consistently focus on the disadvantaged. The organisational support funding, which can be used in part to address their needs, is rarely used for this purpose. Indeed, many sending institutions are unaware of its existence, so closely is it guarded by the hosts.

Ask the mobile students themselves and in large numbers they will say that the grant levels are in fact satisfactory. What jeopardises their participation is the need for them to pay their own travel, visa and insurance expenses up-front – and in the knowledge that their grant, when it comes, may well be late.

Nevertheless, by universal consent, Erasmus+ is a huge success. Its many beneficiaries are eager to express their satisfaction and their gratitude. It is these alumni, perhaps even more than the administrators, who understand the obstacles faced by the disadvantaged. Their contribution to policy-making and programme planning should therefore be strengthened.

The issues I raise here cast a shadow across the otherwise brightly-lit Erasmus+ landscape. They are explored more deeply in a new study undertaken by an EUA team in the framework of the SPHERE capacity-building consortium, on behalf of the European Commission and EACEA.

The solution to the problems is within reach of the parties involved, assuming that they are prepared to work together. They need to give much greater publicity to the opportunities that already exist within Erasmus+. They need to put in place good practices of comprehensive data collection. The relevant agencies in Programme and Partner Countries need to communicate much better with each other. But the highest priority is the building of a strong supra-national consensus on what constitutes disadvantage in higher education.

As one of the co-authors, I am delighted that the Commission has commissioned the study and given an initial welcome to the analysis and recommendations. The disadvantaged can live in hope.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Howard Davies

Howard Davies is an independent consultant and a senior adviser to EUA; he contributes to EUA’s work in capacity building, recognition of academic and professional qualifications, and trade. He holds a PhD from University College London and enjoyed a long career in UK higher education.

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