In 1987 the European Commission started funding a mobility program for European students. This program, named Erasmus after the cosmopolitan scholar (1465–1536), was the culmination of the European partners' political will to cooperate and also the starting point for the harmonization of the European Space for Higher Education. In the construction of Europe, the Europe of knowledge and learning has often lagged behind. Yet in 1955 it was decided that an intergovernmental institute for research and training should be created. It would take more than twenty years to see this hope fulfilled by the inauguration in 1976 of the European University Institute of Florence. Success lay ahead but university cooperation was limited to graduate students, doctoral students, and a few dozen professors. Europe wished to develop a wider process and to target a more varied audience. In 1986 Europe launched the Comett program of cooperation between universities and companies.
Finally, in 1987, the Europe of education became reality, although it was still fragile and patchy. When the Erasmus program was launched in 1987, 3,244 students from all over the European Community went to study in a university of one of its twelve member states. They were pioneers, and enthusiasm for the program soon became widespread. In 1992 eighty thousand students had benefited from the program and ten years into it, four hundred thousand had taken advantage of the grants allocated by the commission.
But these figures are still well below the target set in 1987 of mobility for 10 percent of students moving among universities in Europe. All parties agree on the beneficial effects of the program: the students come back transformed, wiser. They acquire not only exposure to different teaching methods and different research themes but also language skills and a new life—and love—experience. In 2002 the French director Cédric Klapisch (b. 1961) developed this almost mythical dimension of the experience in a movie. L'auberge espagnole (The Spanish apartment), a widely acclaimed Franco-Spanish production, focuses on Xavier, a French student on an Erasmus exchange in Barcelona, where he shares a flat with students from all over Europe. This saga highlights the changes and cultural shock that are also part of the Erasmus experience.
The European Union's voluntarist policy, which permits a sharp development of the mobility of European students, has also been the butt of criticism. In practice, students have faced many obstacles: red tape, a striking lack of accommodation in the host universities, lack of information, welcomes that left much to be desired, differences between school schedules, difficulties in validating credits obtained, and insufficient grants. During the 1990s, a few studies pointed out these weaknesses, along with the gaps and risks entailed by the Erasmus program. The program seemed in danger of becoming an exchange program for wealthy students. Aware that their public images were also at stake, the universities started making considerable efforts to improve their implementation of Erasmus. A specific logistics for Erasmus students was implemented in each university. Student mobility also became a local or regional political issue. Further subsidies were allocated by territorial and regional authorities, national grants, and supplementary grants offered by local powers (for instance the Regions in France) complemented the European Community grants. Aware that the international reputation of local universities could become an asset, towns or regions implemented specific and very public policies to improve the image of their educational institutions. They pampered the incoming students, offering them local tours, language classes, and even gourmet tasting sessions—a far cry from the anonymity of the major universities that welcome thousands of Erasmus students each year. All countries actively joined the Erasmus project. Germany and France head the list, and Spain and Italy, which also attract many students, follow. The United Kingdom's participation in the program, however, is deeply unbalanced; it welcomes many students but "exports" far fewer. The English-speaking or English-teaching universities are sought after by European students, which has increasingly led these institutions to restrict access.
In 2006, 2,199 higher education institutions in thirty-one countries—twenty-five European Union member states, three countries belonging to the European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), and three candidates (Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey)—are part of the Erasmus program. Since its creation, 1.2 million students have benefited from studying abroad. In 2004 the Erasmus budget added up to 187.5 million euros. On 1 January 2004 Erasmus opened up to the world with the launch of Erasmus Mundus. This cooperation and mobility program aims to improve the quality of European higher education through collaboration with new countries. Erasmus Mundus is designed to create new centers of excellence for European teaching and research by supporting high-quality graduate degrees and welcoming students, researchers, and teaching staff from other countries.
But the "Europe of Knowledge" is based on more than a student-mobility project. Erasmus has given rise to many different projects and fits into a much wider European education policy. Subsequent to the launch of Erasmus, seven other operations were set up to promote cooperation between European partners. They include programs that promote the professional training of youth (Petra), promoting foreign languages (Lingua), encouraging continuing education (Force), and spurring technological innovation (Eurotechnet). All these operations, Erasmus included, have now been brought together as Socrates, which is intended to build a Europe of knowledge and contribute to a common European identity. Socrates includes different operations such as Comenius (school education), Erasmus, Grundtvig (adult education), and Lingua and Minerva (information and communication technologies in education). These different operations have highlighted the weaknesses of a Europe of knowledge, notably the diverging national traditions of each country and the uncountable difficulties in following a truly European program. Although it is possible to take classes for a few months or a year in another European country, it is still difficult to validate the degrees obtained outside the national borders. Yet the economic world demands multilingual employees, trained in different cultures and prepared for work in an international environment. Thus the homogenization of higher education has become a European priority.
At the Sorbonne in May 1998, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and France made a formal appeal (known as the Sorbonne Declaration) for a European University: "The Europe we are building is not only that of the Euro currency, of banks and economy, it must also be a Europe of knowledge." The European Commission encouraged the use of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), already used in Erasmus exchanges, a system adopted to ensure that credits and diplomas obtained are acknowledged and validated. In June 1999 all the European education ministers pursued the process by signing the Bologna Declaration, which harmonizes the European Space for Higher Education. The changes in the European University Space go deep: acknowledged and clear degrees; a program divided into three cycles (bachelor's, master's, and doctorate levels); a system of credit transfer and accumulation; student, teacher, and researcher mobility; and the development of a culture of quality evaluation. This famous Bologna Declaration has had a tremendous impact. All European universities have been asked to revise their syllabi, degrees, and the way in which these are valued. Implementation of the Bologna policies has not always been easy, particularly for the many institutions that had to shift suddenly from a two- to a three-year syllabus for the first part of their degree courses. Ultimately, this small revolution will permanently transform the shape of higher education in Europe.
Berning, Ewald, in cooperation with Margit Weihrich and Wolfgang Fischer. Accommodation of ERASMUS-students in the Member States of the Europe-Community: Study Carried Out for the Commissioners of the European Communities. Munich, 1992.
European Union education information. Available at http://www.Europa.eu.int/comm/education.