Johan De Rycker
On 5 and 6 October, a gaggle of ‘Erasmus Mundus’ Masters and Joint Doctorate Fellowship students gathered in Roskilde for the second annual “Human[i]ties Perspective” Academic Conference, funded by the European Commission’s DG Education and Culture, on ‘Empowerment in a Globalized Society’.
They were told by the powers that be that programmes such as “Erasmus” and governments in general were into “education, education, education” and “innovation, innovation, innovation”, but as one Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate Fellow told me “from my lowly position, it sure as hell doesn’t look like it, whatever they pretend.” They were told that the name of the programmes might be changed, and that basically the brand “Erasmus” and “Erasmus Mundus” would be lost, asking the students and higher education teachers present to e-mail those making said decision… but nothing was said about the entire thing going bankrupt – as if this elite band of students is oblivious to what they can gather in cyberspace.
In the days just before (on October 2nd and 4th) anyone following the key-word “Erasmus” could read in either presseurop.eu or EUbusiness.com that something was up.
Alain Lamassoure, head of the European Parliament Budget Committee, for example, had just warned that: “… the European Social Fund is bankrupt and cannot refund member states. Next week it will be Erasmus, the student programme; at the end of the month, the Research and Innovation Fund.”
He made this comment in the knowledge that Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski would be asking Member States for “several billion” extra to plug the deficit of about €10bn, or as La Vanguardia stated it: “substantial” modifications to the budget will need to be passed on October 23rd to avoid a “cessation of payments”, the Commission already having provided €420m to pay the most urgent bills. Failing that the EU executive would be unable to re-imburse (my emphasis) monies owed to several member states – €400m to France, €600m to Greece and €900m to Spain for example.
It is, however, highly unlikely that member states will assign extra funds, as the problems faced by the EU social programmes are caused by austerity measures running at €4bn this year, introduced by … the net contributors to the EU budget, including Britain which spearheaded the efforts to trim the 2012 EU-budget.
This year, Erasmus, globally recognised as the most successful student exchange programme, is to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Since it started in 1987, close to 3m students and 300,000 higher education teachers and staff in 4000 higher education institutions in 33 participating countries have been participating in this programme for an annual budget of about €450m. Whereas 1987 started with 3244 students in 11 countries, to date we’re talking about more than 230,000 students annually, having inspired the sorely needed modernisation of higher education in the EU.
Talking to several colleagues responsible for setting up or running Erasmus undergraduate exchange, Erasmus Mundus MA and Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate programmes, at my own University (Université Libre de Bruxelles), but equally in Roskilde, Lund, Prague, Porto, Lisbon, Berlin and Kent, the majority of them are sounding rather bleak about whether they will get any more funding for new incoming cohorts – or worse, whether they will be paid for the work they already did.
This is especially dire for universities in Spain and Portugal for example who are leading the pack in welcoming incoming students on EU grants. Lisbon is basically becoming a ghost town – its population has dropped considerably to one of only 500,000 mainly old people as understandably the young are moving elsewhere for work – and the same is happening in Porto. As Tiago, a Porto MA student, said: “Portugal is closing down”. These towns were relying on their status as “Erasmus cities” with lots of foreign students coming to live in and revivify the town … “so if Erasmus goes bust, it’s even worse for us …”
But there’s more, as Katharine told me: “It’s a sad thing in general that this programme might be stopped earlier than we thought as far as taking further cohorts in is concerned. Which isn’t great for us in future stakes, if you think about it: what will having an “Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate” actually mean then in the future?”
Britain in this context also is owed at least €200m re-imbursement, which led Lamassoure to say that by trimming the budget it was shooting itself in the foot, denouncing what he termed “an absurd situation”.
Whereas Machiavelli had a passionate commitment to life in this world and a hard, steady confidence that in politics it is possible to penetrate “to the real truth of the matter”, Thomas More, who could claim with even greater confidence to know the “real truth” in politics, looked at truth of an entirely different order. As Stephen Greenblatt puts it in “Renaissance Self-Fashioning”: ‘For Machiavelli the political world is transparent; for More, it is opaque. And More’s great faith, his sense of absolute truth, seems only to have increased that opacity, by rendering political life essentially absurd.’
Thomas More’s great buddy, Desiderius Erasmus, known for his “In Praise of Folly”, was equally unaverse to absurdity. His motto however was “Concedo Nulli”.
It now looks absurdly as if his name will have to concede to the folly of short-sighted political “austerity” mongers, whose motto may well be “Give it all to the Banks”.