Erasmus: A trickle that turned to a flood

From small beginnings, there grew a movement and now 300,000 students participate in the Erasmus programme each year

Tens of millions of deaths in the first and second World Wars were young men who succumbed on the soil of foreign countries, miles from their homes.

If a driving force behind the creation of the EU (formerly the EEC) was a closer, familial Europe, then there was a clear need to create an antithetical space to the battle field where the continent's youth could engage.

When the Erasmus programme emerged in 1987 its raison d'être was educational opportunity, but the underlining fabric was youth mobility; a drive not only to integrate students across the continent but to foster relationships and understandings that would shore up the European ideal generations later.

Its legacy would be educational achievement and broader exposure to varying methods of learning, but it would also germinate cultural curiosity, tourism, business ties, trade and a spirit of kinship.


This year, Erasmus (now reformed as Erasmus+) is 30 years old. Its first participants have adult children who may themselves have travelled across the 28 member state bloc, and further afield, on a campaign of discovery. If it seems trite, it is accurate to say that 99 and 72 years on respectively from the two great global conflicts, arms have been replaced with classrooms for thousands of European citizens.

"[In the first half of the 20th century] the mobilisation of young people was largely for the purposes of war. The state was using its young people as soldiers," says Gerry O'Sullivan, head of the international programmes at the Higher Education Authority (HEA), reflecting on the origins of the programme.

“It was in that spirit of European integration that the idea came . . . the European ideal would be better served by having young graduates who would go forward to be opinion formers and leaders and this [inter-country movement] would be a very useful experience for them.”

Erasmus – the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students – was born when a relative trickle of students packed their bags to take up the offer of exchange programmes and study part of their degrees on foreign campuses.

Ireland was one of just 11 initial participants. These early steps were then encouraged by the Maastricht Treaty and the deregulation of European airlines in 1992, with its resultant era of cheap flights. The continent was opening up to its youth.

The first year of Erasmus involved 3,000 students – the “big, big numbers”, says O’Sullivan, arrived over the past 20 years and now about 300,000 travel every year.

The core concept of Erasmus is that students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – can undertake between three months and one year of their course in a partnered third-level institution where, crucially, the work undertaken will count toward their final qualification. There is also a programme for teachers but undergraduates make up the majority of participants.

It is open to about 35 institutions in Ireland, almost 4,000 across Europe. The programme is funded for seven years at a time and for the current period (2014 to 2020) the EU budget is €16.7 billion.

Of that, Ireland receives about €10 million a year, some of which goes to sustain students abroad (the system is not designed to meet the total cost).

The amount an applicant receives is based on which country they attend and the cost of living there, as ranked in three tiers – Ireland being among the most expensive.

Figures for the 2017/18 programme, supplied by the HEA, show European funding of €8.6 million for 3,883 students travelling to "programme" countries within the EU. The University of Limerick (UL) had the highest proportion of students at 670, followed by NUI Galway (427) and University College Dublin (410). A total of 433 staff members from Irish institutions also took part.

For “partner” countries – a smaller number outside the EU – the UL was also the biggest participant, with 43 students and 83 staff receiving total funding of €433,000. In total, Ireland sent 127 students and 233 staff members with grant funding reaching just over €1.2 million.

One of the conditions of the Erasmus experience is that students do not have to pay tuition fees even in countries or institutions that require their own students to do so. In keeping with the European ideal, the programme is about freedom of movement and fees would be considered a hindrance.

Students can also carry their higher education grants with them to other countries and there are additional funds available to those from less privileged backgrounds or with disability issues.

Irish participation in the programme continues to grow. In February, 1988, University College Dublin president Dr Patrick Masterson pointed to the Erasmus programme when discussing how the European idea was much more than an economic vision.

Erasmus represented, he said, the “beginning of a genuine community of intellect, thought and spirit”. Despite this kind of foresight for what Erasmus would ultimately deliver, in its first year Ireland was funded for 15 students to go abroad. The following year, grant levels were expected to quadruple; more third-level institutions were establishing joint study programmes.

In the 2015/2016 academic year, about 3,200 students from Ireland took part and it is anticipated that the number this year will exceed the 3,600 mark. By 2020 it is expected to rise to about 4,500. A decade ago it was 1,500 and numbers have been on a steady upward trajectory since.

Educational participation has grown over the decades, explaining much of the growth, as has the familiarity and enthusiasm around the mere prospect of foreign study.

But there is clearly something tantalising about the benefits of Erasmus – not just to its EU sponsors, but to students.

“Firstly it takes people out of their comfort zone. Irish students in the main go to the institution that is nearest to them,” says O’Sullivan, explaining that up to 60 per cent of an Irish institution’s student body is local. “We haven’t a great history of mobility.

“[Abroad] you are part of a different pool and a different experience. You are managing as a foreigner in another country. It’s at a time in your life when you are probably gathering impressions and influences and this is one of the more positive things that you can do.”

Before the programme, he says, it was mainly Irish teachers for Irish students in Irish classrooms. Throwing off those shackles gives participants a chance to see how subjects are taught in foreign environments, shaped as they are by myriad influences and perspectives, cultural, historical and otherwise.

“The only down side is that we haven’t enough money to allow more people to do it,” he says, sidestepping the possibility Erasmus might have its negative aspects. On second thoughts, he offers up the “post-Erasmus depression” phenomenon in which students find they must adapt to their repatriation.

“Students come back very much better motivated from abroad and they are not at all intimidated by the prospect of working in another member state.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Irish students' overwhelming destinations mirror Leaving Certificate languages – France, Spain, Germany dominating, followed by the UK and, more surprisingly, the Netherlands.

The duration of study periods, ranging from three months to a year, generally relate to the length of the course, with four-year courses more likely to allow students leave for a full year. In Ireland the average is about six months.

About 2 per cent of full-time undergraduates registered in an Irish Higher Education Institution go on Erasmus every year (the figure is 3 per cent in the UK) and about 7 per cent of Irish graduates taking Bachelor's Degree courses have taken part.

"They tend to go mostly from arts [degrees], humanities, languages, social sciences, business and law, and not as many from subjects like engineering and medicine because they have quite a lot of clinical placements," says O'Sullivan. In recent years, a lot of nursing students have been travelling to Norway.

Ireland possibly suffers from a slight isolation mentality when it comes to participation – an Erasmus “culture” is more likely to take hold organically in countries that share land borders, although Irish students are, says O’Sullivan, in line with European averages.

“We are an island and it’s that bit more expensive. Someone once said to me that you can do an Erasmus from Germany on a bicycle.”

But it cannot be viewed simply as an opportunity for Irish students to have a positive experience abroad. Possibly the less trumpeted benefits of the programme are domestic.

Over 7,200 students choose Ireland as their destination every year and research supplied by the HEA claims at least 80 per cent of these (5,760) received 4.3 visitors to the country, equalling about 25,000 tourist visits.

This is more than just a cash injection. “You start a relationship with these people and when they become parents themselves they may send their own children to Ireland during their education,” says O’Sullivan.

“It’s very difficult to track but one suspects that if you have had a good experience, there is no reason to believe it doesn’t lead to more opportunities down the road.”

Case Studies

Name: Holly Cowman (38)

Erasmus year: 1999/2000

Where: L'Università degli Studi di Firenze (University of Florence), Italy

Course: BA in Liberal Arts at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

There’s a statue of a boar in Florence and if you place your hand in its mouth it is said you will return one day. Holly Cowman has been back several times, not necessarily thanks to the boar, but because she did her Erasmus there almost two decades ago. It has shaped much of her life since.

“One of my friends said Florence is a city you can never say goodbye to and it is,” she says. Holly studied the language as well as the histories of art, Italian cinema and philosophy.

"They study everything in depth in Italy. We spent the whole semester studying a close-up [sequence] in Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc."

Back in 1999, the young student had dreamed of living in Italy at some stage and “when I heard in first year that we could go [there on Erasmus], I said ‘I’m going!’”

She worked in bars, was an extra in the movie Hannibal and slowly felt she became part of the fabric.

“Florence is a very touristy city but when you live there and they know you for a while, you get the local price and you get extra,” she says.

“I remember crying on the plane coming home. It was heartbreaking. People said, ‘oh you will come back again’, but I knew if I did I wouldn’t be local, I would be a tourist.”

Today, as director of the international office at Mary Immaculate College, she helps students travel to non-EU countries – her professional life directly influenced by the Erasmus experience.

Things are much easier for students now; everything is organised before they go, even accommodation – a long way from the “telephone boxes and coins” search of old.

“You grow up a lot. It completely changes every life and it’s something that they talk about forever. It’s maybe the first time someone has left their country and everything that is familiar to them,” says Holly.

“[It’s about] finding out that they can go and live in a new place and make friends. Go to a new city and the city becomes like a friend as well.”

Name: Patrick Grealy (49)

Erasmus year: 1988

Where: TH Darmstadt, former West Germany

Course: BA in Mathematical Science, Trinity College Dublin.

When he packed his bags for a small city south of Frankfurt in the late 1980s, Patrick Grealy was one of the very first Irish students to take part in the Erasmus programme.

He was travelling to a Germany which was then the global focal point of Cold War hostilities, with Berlin divided east and west.

Nobody knew what Erasmus would become and Patrick remembers many of his fellow students being put off by the possible risks – the need to achieve a good degree weighed against an intimidating language barrier.

“It was probably too risky [for some people] and I thought about that and I thought the authorities will want to see that this is a success,” he says.

“I thought, a bit of an adventure. There was a little bit of money coming from Europe as well. We were going to get €1,000 in ecus as it was called at the time, it wasn’t even euros.

“I think that that same year a handful of students in Trinity went to Spain but they were studying Spanish so that was probably a God-send for them but to go on a technical [course] was different.”

Thirty years later, Patrick says the personal and cultural experience had more of an impact than the academic aspect. He recalls watching the local football team, mingling with Palestinian students on UN passports and visiting Berlin before the Wall come down.

Now an actuary, his experience was a harbinger for the thousands of students who would follow in his path.

“It was the start of something that blossomed into what seems to be a great thing,” he says.

“It’s that whole sort of learning experience outside of the lecture theatre as well as inside. You can’t not look at it and say that’s not something that I can really take away from my university experience and stand me in good stead.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times