In 1987, the European Union launched the first European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students: the Erasmus programme. Fast forward to 2020- it is now the most well-known international programme for students worldwide. Since its inception, over five million students have benefited from learning mobility, and almost double the learners have benefitted from its funding. What Erasmus has achieved for students’ mobility is not only the possibility to learn in another country, but it also set its values and mission as benchmarks for mobility worldwide.
Today, the Erasmus+ embodies true lifelong learning. The political attention to education and training has skyrocketed and, despite some resistances, the Erasmus+ is the only programme that can count on a substantial increase in its budget for the next programme cycle. Sometimes, in European policies, education is understood solely as a means to equip students for labour market needs and the focus is too often only on skills development; but the opportunities for personal development and a renewed attention to social and inclusive aspects of education have risen back in the political arena. It is not by chance that today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, lifelong learning has been gaining a lot of attention: there exists a political momentum where European institutions are aware of the importance of other forms of learning such as non-formal and informal education taking place outside of the formal education systems.
On the other hand, this is clearly a difficult moment for learning mobility. While we sail in uncharted territories regarding the next mobility periods, virtual and blended mobility are being explored as patch-up solutions: for instance, the European Commission has launched the Virtual Erasmus which, while unable to address the social aspects of learning, is trying to plug the holes. With digital learning on the rise, one of the main noticeable trends is the need to re-skill and up-skill one’s competences. This has become increasingly important in a fast-changing world and has been given a vigorous acceleration by the pandemic: digital skills, for instance, are no longer optional.
The European Commission has set targets for Education and Training in Europe, the so-called ET2020 framework, to meet the new needs of lifelong learners. It bears several long-term objectives for Europe, such as: make lifelong learning and mobility a reality; improve the quality and efficiency of education and training; promote equity, social cohesion, and active citizenship; enhance creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training.
To sustain such ambitious goals, it has put in place a number of policies for quality and inclusive education. What’s worth mentioning, you ask? The European Qualifications Framework is certainly amongst the most useful ones, as its aim is to harmonise qualifications standards and increase transparency in order to improve mobility and employability across Europe. On a practical level, it’s what enables students in Europe to see their diplomas certified abroad. The European Skills Agenda is the main instrument to face contemporary challenges and equip all learners with the right skills. The real long-term ambition for higher education is the creation of a European Education Area by 2025: a far-reaching objective that would really boost lifelong learning opportunities for students and learners, cross-cut education sectors and shape the future of education in Europe for the years to come. But if we had to name one key initiative for all learners, we must mention the Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, which provide a framework for social, civic and intercultural competences as well as creativity, entrepreneurship, and environment related competences.
One of the things Europe is advancing the most on is a common framework for European students and their mobility. Thanks to initiatives like the European Student Card, and the creation of a digital platform, students' status will be automatically recognised by all information systems of higher education institutions in Europe. Another initiative that puts Europe on par with modern times is the Erasmus Without Paper, which takes away from mobility students the administrative burden that Erasmus+ sometimes implies. All these initiatives are intended to ultimately simplify access to mobility and services, including accommodation and housing.
In these 33 years of Erasmus, students’ mobility has changed a lot, and so has education in Europe. The main issue to address in mobility remains the inclusion of all students, especially marginalised students for whom funding opportunities are too low. What's reassuring in times of uncertainty is having a common framework to more inclusive and learner-centred societies, where student's voice is represented and heard, which can serve as a roadmap for all the players creating more sustainable knowledge ecosystem.