The European Commission confirmed this week that the Erasmus student exchange scheme boosts employability and job prospects. The report of the Erasmus Impact Study findings states that graduates with international experience are half as likely to experience long-term unemployment than those without, and that 5 years after graduation the unemployment rate of Erasmus students is 23% lower. While increasing employability is important for a student to consider, reducing international exchange to a tick box is a great shame and inimical to the spirit of the Erasmus scheme itself.
Students are now encouraged to make choices dependent on what will make them a more desirable product in the job market. On the British Council website, topping the list of "reasons to take part" in the Erasmus exchange programme is "stand out in the job market - a great addition to your CV". This type of logic is applied to everything from participation in societies to developing personal skills to voluntary activity in the community. Value is measured by the impact it makes on a CV or Facebook page. But surely a football captain is first and foremost motivated by a love of sport, an Amnesty activist by a commitment to justice and a saxophonist in jazz band by the music he plays?
The Erasmus programme was introduced in 1987 with the aim of increasing student mobility within the European community, bringing with it greater levels of social, cultural and professional exchange within Europe. Political scientist Stefan Wolff referred to the 'Erasmus generation' as a generation more sensitive to their European neighbours which will then have an effect on the relations between countries and the attitude of citizens to structures such as the EU.
The scheme was named after the Dutch Philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who advocated intercultural exchange and spoke out against dogmatism and religious intolerance. Erasmus himself lived and worked in many places in Europe. His motivation: to gain knowledge and new insights. When asked, students gave a range of motivations for following in the Dutch philosopher's footsteps. Noémie Pérès said, "I decided to study abroad because it is the best way to experience a different education system and discover another way of life". Aidan Stankard said "My main motive was the chance to live abroad for a few months, especially as the country was Germany, a country in whose language and culture I had always had an interest".
Whether your bank of Erasmus memories features balmy evening walks along the river Seine, singing karaoke in Finland or trying to make small talk in foreign tongue, the benefit gained from an Erasmus experience transcends a gold star for the CV. Simon Neary described it as "an unforgettable experience and the highlight of my college life" while Cillian McNamara shared, "I realised that friendship and communication are based on a lot more than a common language". Another student said, "On a personal level, I gained friends from every corner of the globe". A UCL French lecturer stressed that, for language students, a period abroad is essential for the study of a language and culture and that every year the difference in returning students' spoken language was noticeable across the board.
Umberto Eco considers the "Erasmus idea" to be so important that it should become compulsory for everyone: "not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers". He views the programme to be part of an integrating process, stressing that a European identity is cemented by culture and love; not by war and politics. Ties of friendship and love are formed across cultures and borders. Eco calls it a "sexual revolution" and indeed, according to the recent EU report, one in three Erasmus students return home having fallen in love with someone from another country.
Much lower down the report states that "Erasmus not only improves career prospects, it also offers students broader horizons and social links". The report acknowledges that the first wish of mobile students is to "experience living abroad, to develop skills such as adaptability and improve their language abilities". This is followed by the wish to "enhance employability abroad".
A boost to employability and job prospects is great news, but the more noble, founding notions that underpin the Erasmus scheme must not be forgotten.