The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is the biggest student association in Europe which offers its services to around 350,000 international students every year. To know more about his point of view on #Erasmus500, we interviewed Kostis Giannidis, President of ESN. Read on to know more about his personal experience with Erasmus, current perceived flaws of the grant allocation system, and the need to invest in student mobility in order to achieve goals set by the European Commission.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to give us some insights into the initiative. Firstly, tell us about your personal experience with Erasmus+!
I am one those people whose life has been changed thanks to the Erasmus+ programme. I had the pleasure of this transformative Erasmus+ experience during my Bachelor’s degree studies. I still remember the excitement I felt back then when I was notified by the International Relations Office of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki that I was selected to undertake an Erasmus+ mobility for studies in the United Kingdom. I never had the chance before to live or study abroad. I was afraid, because it was a big step for me at that time, but I was simultaneously very excited, having heard about so many positive experiences with Erasmus+. In the end, I discovered how all the stories about Erasmus+ were true and I realised that no matter of what you might have heard, if you don’t live yourself the experience you cannot fully grasp what it is about. One can say I got addicted to Erasmus+: after my first experience abroad, I pursued more similar opportunities. During my Master’s, I went for an Erasmus+ traineeship in Germany and for Erasmus+ studies in Sweden. My love and my passion for the programme led me to become part of the Erasmus Student Network and contribute to the empowerment of the Erasmus Generation.
The pandemic has disrupted several Erasmus+ activities and mobilities. From your viewpoint and considering the results of the survey that the Erasmus Student Network has conducted recently on the impact of COVID-19 on student mobilities, do you believe #Erasmus500 is still relevant and, if so, why?
In my opinion the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge the programme has faced during its existence. I am saddened to see that many students had to cancel their mobility. Based on the findings of a dedicated ESN survey, we can see that around 25% of exchange students had to cancel their mobilities, while those who continued had to follow courses online while in quarantine in their houses. It is evident that students didn’t experience everything the programme can offer. If we consider the financial impact of COVID-19 in the society in general, we can safely assume that students will need more financial support to go abroad. Currently, the Erasmus+ grant is not enough to cover the cost of a mobility period abroad. In most cases, the grant covers around 50% of the expenses or even less. This means the students count on financial support from their parents or resort to spending their own savings. I am afraid that this won’t be possible in the future and therefore we need a substantial increase of the grant that students receive.
In your eyes, what are the limitations of the current grant allocation mechanism?
The grant mechanism is currently calculated based on the living cost of the country that students choose for studies. The countries are divided in three different groups: countries with low, medium or high living costs. We can see there are a lot of disparities between the countries within each of the groups. For example, Greece is part of the same group as Belgium. As a Greek living in Belgium, I can definitely tell you that there is a big difference in the living cost. Another issue with the current system is that the Erasmus+ National Agencies have the flexibility to decide the grant amount, which has to be within a range indicated by the European Commission. Some National Agencies decided to adapt the full range of the grant, while others decided to lower the grant in order to be able send a higher number of students abroad. The differences between grants create a flaw in the system. For example, students from Portugal who study in Germany get less money than students from Germany who study in Portugal.
What do you personally find so great about Erasmus+ and how would it change with the #Erasmus500 grant?
Personally, I see so many great benefits in the programme and I can talk about this for hours, or even days. My friends can confirm how I tired them with my Erasmus+ experiences, convincing them to go abroad. In general, Erasmus+ gives you the opportunity to discover a new world, to challenge and improve yourself, to gain new experiences. I believe that all young people should have the chance to live this life changing experience no matter what their background is. The financial aspect is one of the most important barriers for students to not choose to go on Erasmus+. This is where #Erasmus500 is coming into play. With a substantial increase to the grant, we are aiming to provide equal opportunities for all students to have a sufficient baseline grant; in the case of vulnerable groups, where more funding is needed, additional top-up funding should be allocated.
In your opinion, why is a fairer grant system important for both universities and students?
The current grant mechanism is an administrative nightmare for the university staff working at the International Relations Offices. It takes a lot of time, human resources, and therefore financial resources in order to fill in multiple spreadsheets and upload the information to the system. Universities who have a high number of mobile students have to go one by one to identify the type of grant each student deserves. A simpler grant mechanism will eliminate this bureaucratic procedure and the universities can spend this time for more meaningful tasks, such as the preparation of mobile students, integration activities for incoming international students etc. On top of that, the financial resources can be invested in the financial support of the students. From the students’ point of view, a universal baseline grant will solve the disparity issues mentioned above and students from different countries who meet at the same university won’t have to wonder why one student disposes of more money than another.
From your point of view, what do you expect to get out of the #Erasmus500 campaign? What would be the long-term effects on the European Higher Education Area?
The impact of #Erasmus500 will lead to an increase of mobile students around Europe and at the same time will improve the quality of the mobility experience. The target of reaching 20% of mobile students by 2020, set by the European Commission, has not been achieved. According to the last Education and Training Monitor report from 2019, the mobile student population is around 11%. If we want to achieve the set goal, an ambitious investment is needed.
Why do you think it matters for students or student organisations to support this campaign? How can they make a difference?
I am very glad to see that many student organisations and individual students embraced the #Erasmus500 proposal. This level of support speaks volumes about how relevant this initiative is for the students.
I believe it is imperative for students to unite their voices under #Erasmus500 in order to influence the decision makers and convince them that for a more inclusive and sustainable Erasmus+ programme, an adequate investment is needed.
28 July 2020