Erasmus is the oldest education programme of the European Union and a unique European success story. Initiated in 1987, it celebrated, together with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, its 30th anniversary on 13 June 2017.
Erasmus (an acronym for EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) originally started as a European exchange programme for students; between 1987 and 2017 the number of students on exchange was about 4,400,000. In comparison: in 1987, Erasmus started with just 3,244 students in 11 countries. In the meantime, 33 countries in Europe are taking part in the programme. Since Austria has become part of the Erasmus universe (1992), 110,000 students have used the opportunity to spend a semester or academic year abroad.
The primary objective of Erasmus is to promote mutual understanding in Europe. The results so far are by all means impressive: A Europe-wide survey has shown that 83 % of students who took part in the Erasmus programme feel a strong connection to Europe; 81 % of them voted in the European Parliament elections 2014.
In 2014, the previously independent programmes Grundtvig (adult education), Comenius (school education) and Leonardo da Vinci (vocational education and training) were combined under the roof Erasmus+ and expanded by the fields of “Youth” and “Sport”. The budget for the current programme period (2014-2020) is Euro 14.8 billion Europe-wide, whereby about 220 million is available to Austria. From this amount, over 43 % are allotted to higher education, 22 % to vocational education, further 15 % to school education, 12 % to youth and only 5 % have been reserved for adult education, thus showing the only real weak point of the European mobility programmes: Measured against their share of the population, students still benefit disproportionately from the grants. An increased focus on the mobility of other parts of the population would be desirable, in particular in respect to the objective of strengthening the attachment to the “Project Europe”.
Since 2017, there is now a new initiative, which is largely funded from the “Youth” budget within Erasmus+, the so-called Solidarity Corps: young people between 18 and 30 shall have the opportunity, independent of studies or school education, to engage in voluntary work throughout Europe. The objective is that they work locally in cooperation with aid organisations, communities and businesses.
Since December 2016, more than 30,000 young people have already registered with the European Voluntary Service. The long awaited Directive Proposal of the Commission, which apart from the issue of funding, also lists in detail the activities, which shall be possible within the scope of the Solidarity Corps, finally materialised at the end of May: so-called “solidarity placements” – classic voluntary work of up to one year -“traineeship placements”, internships of 2 to 6 months as well as “job placements”, which are limited to a maximal duration of 12 months, which, however, can only be offered in agreement with national legislation.
In doing so, the European Commission reacts to criticism by the European Parliament, which complained about ambiguities with regard to financing and the extent of activities. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is also critical of the proposal by the EU Commission: ETUC points out that voluntary work would be good and important; however, that it must not lead to an expansion of precarious employment relationships. From a trade union perspective, what is missing is a clear distinction between voluntary work and internships, vocational trainings or even paid work.
The overwhelming rush by young people shows that the Solidarity Corps is indeed able to close the gap concerning the support of young adults doing cross-border voluntary work – however, it is still not clear whether there will be enough organisations, which are prepared to offer this opportunity for cooperation.