Surge in demand for Erasmus places among Irish students is welcome news

Covid badly disrupted the student experience. Many are keen to make up for it abroad

It is the largest study abroad programme of its type in the world. In fact, it has been so successful that the term “Erasmus” is now the internationally understood shorthand for those who study abroad no matter what the funding background.

Since it was established 35 years ago, millions of students across Europe have left the comfort zone of their home institution to spend study or traineeship visits in another European country, among them tens of thousands of students from Ireland.

For the first time in the history of the Erasmus programme, the Irish Government is to dip into the national purse to provide financial support for students seeking to study and work abroad. A surge in demand has left the Erasmus+ national agency at the Higher Education Authority (HEA) seriously short of funds.

Without the Government funds, the agency would only be able to support about 3,200 student mobilities and 250 staff visits

A co-fund of €7 million is being made available by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris in two tranches – €3.5 million in 2022 and €3.5 million in 2023 – to help bridge the shortfall. The Government also anticipates that freeing up more places in Ireland will enable the sector to admit more fellow Europeans who would normally have gone to the United Kingdom.

This welcome intervention has been made necessary by a massive 66 per cent increase in demand for places on the programme under the 2021-22 call. The HEA’s Erasmus+ national agency, which manages the higher education element of the programme received applications for more than 8,700 study and work abroad periods from the participating higher education institutions compared to 5,500 for the 2020-21 year.

But a huge problem resulted when the European Commission was not in a position to provide the promised additional funding at the start of the latest iteration of the programme, which covers the period 2021-27.

The national agency has had its budget for the 2021-22 academic year slashed by €3 million (a 25 per cent cut) down to €9 million compared to €12 million for 2020-21. This dip will be recovered from 2023 when EU funds will rise appreciably.

Without the Government funds, the agency would only be able to support about 3,200 student mobilities and 250 staff visits. Thanks to the additional €3.5 million, another 1,500 individuals can be assisted in 2022 and a similar number in 2023.

The commitment does not extend beyond 2023. By then, the Government expects the extra funds from the European Commission will kick in. Applications always exceed actual realised mobilities with the highest outward-bound number to date being recorded in 2019 at 3,995. A realisation of 4,700 mobilities by summer 2022 will be a national record.

The challenge is mainly felt by the eight Irish University Association universities plus Munster Technological University who account for some 87 per cent of total outbound numbers.

Those with the largest growth are University of Limerick (+364), NUI Galway (+326), Trinity College Dublin (+264), University College Dublin (+261), Dublin City University (+170) and TU Dublin (+100).

Another very positive development has been the decision by the European Commission to provide mandatory supplementary social inclusion support of €250 per month

Since the launch of the Erasmus programme by Irish former European commissioner Peter Sutherland in 1987 more than 65,000 students and staff from Ireland have benefited. Among them the RTÉ "Ireland's Fittest Family" personality and Cork camogie All-Ireland winner Anna Geary, former Wexford football captain and London manager Ciarán Deely and film star Dominic West.

Driving the numbers

Coming off the back of a very travel unfriendly Covid landscape, the rise in demand is somewhat surprising. A significant feature driving the numbers is the fact that 1,500 mobilities are for students who must spend mandatory spells of one or two semesters of their degree programmes abroad.

Other reasons posited are the greater flexibilities offered under the new programme, which, subject to certain conditions, permit study abroad periods of as short as five to 30 days compared to the traditional minimum two months study/work stays.

Another very positive development has been the decision by the European Commission to provide mandatory supplementary social inclusion support of €250 per month.

The net result of this is that a Susi (Student Universal Support Ireland) student will be able to receive roughly €550 for a study visit (up from €480) and €670 for a traineeship/work placement (compared to €500 per month, maximum). The Erasmus+ national agency voluntarily introduced top-up social inclusion support in 2014 and was heading for a 20 per cent participation rate from Susi recipients before the pandemic struck.

The Covid-19 pandemic has badly disrupted the student “experience” over the last two years. Remote learning and close campuses took their toll. With savings from the pandemic unemployment payment in the bank, students may have a bit more disposable income in their pockets to recover some of that lost learning by embarking on a study/work period in another EU/EEA country.