Covid threat to university exchange scheme

By Isabelle Smurfit, Executive

Erasmus is life-changing for many people; giving those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to travel abroad and meet students from around the world. It provides unrivalled international access to work and academic exchanges, with 5,000 institutions signed up across 37 countries. I was lucky enough to spend a year in Prague, at Charles University, breaking up my four-year course in Dublin. It was a great experience, where I got to study alongside a diverse group of students and travel at ease around Europe (not to mention that beer is cheaper than water in the Czech Republic). However, the emergence of Covid-19 has cast doubt over the future appeal of Erasmus. With online learning becoming the norm, universities are set to look very different this year. This begs the question, would you want to go on a foreign exchange?

Covid-19 has already had a critical impact on the programme. Figures show that 25% of exchanges were cancelled, 50% of courses that did continue were moved online and subsequently, a 65% drop in 2020 applicants is expected. The Erasmus programme’s own website advises you to focus on 2021 enrolment, as many host universities are rejecting students for the upcoming term. Trinity College Dublin recently became one of the only Irish universities to allow students to go on Erasmus this year. However, they also issued warnings about foreign travel and discouraged those from going whose course would be purely online. This gave students a difficult choice to make about studying abroad in such uncertain times.

With nine million participants since its inception in 1987, Erasmus has slowly become more accessible. It now provides students with maintenance grants and identical fee payments to their home university. This allows them to choose their study destination based primarily on preference rather than price. I personally can’t imagine starting my Erasmus journey in these times; having to settle in through online interaction, being grouped in ‘bubbles’ and maintaining social distancing on site. Moving to a new country, often alone, is daunting enough without the current challenges created by the pandemic. It is of course necessary for the programme to advance with safety in mind, however maintaining the social aspect for students is also extremely important.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU is another consideration on the future of the programme. Many are less hopeful after the government announced plans last week to remove EU students’ home fee status and access to student loans. It is important to note that Erasmus students have contributed around £420 million a year to the UK economy. Whilst a decision on Erasmus itself has not yet been announced, the government said in February that it would think about participating “on a time-limited basis, provided the terms are in the UK’s interests.” At a difficult time for the programme, Brexit is another factor that could have a critical impact.

The current pandemic has accelerated the transition of universities online, removing the need to be physically present and thus avoiding costly rent and travel issues. This presents a significant challenge for the future of the Erasmus programme. With the much lower risk of Covid-19 transmission among students, it is necessary for universities across Europe to have a flexible approach to “study abroad” schemes going forward. Whilst there will undoubtedly be a shift towards online lectures, institutions should come up with creative, new ways to welcome students and to ensure that the social experience, which was so important to me, is not neglected.