Lockdown, university closures, internships suspended or cancelled – as Covid-19 brought a halt to Erasmus students’ year of cultural immersion, students were faced with the difficult question: do we stay or do we go?
The Erasmus funding scheme was initiated by the European Union and is designed to promote mobility by offering students the opportunity to study or work abroad. However, with international travel coming to a standstill, suddenly the prospect of being stuck in a foreign country was not what thousands of Erasmus students had envisioned of their year abroad and many disappointed and confused students returned home to their families.
For some, the choice was not so simple; a university student from Leeds spoke to us about her carrying out a paid internship in Madrid while lockdown measures were introduced in Spain. Faced with the suspension of her internship while still having to pay her monthly accommodation bills, leaving immediately was simply not financially viable, and she was not the only one. Numerous students across Europe felt that universities were slow to give advice and guidance and there were clear discrepancies between universities’ levels of support for students across the board. Some provided financial help to those who needed it, or gave simple reassurances that their decision to leave the country would be accepted by their home university, while other institutions gave little to no support.
In the long term, the abrupt end to this year’s Erasmus mobility year and the potential for disruptions for the next cohort of Erasmus students points to gloomy prospects for many young Europeans. With youth unemployment in southern Europe already relatively high and set to increase due to the economic impact of coronavirus, the possibilities and prospects for younger generations are diminishing. Youth unemployment in Spain is currently at 30 per cent and for many young Spaniards, the opportunity to participate in the Erasmus programme is not only a way to learn a new language and become immersed in a different culture but is also vital for employability. Undertaking an internship in another European country allows students to gain a foothold in the job market – if you impress, there could be a graduate job waiting for you afterwards.
Covid-19 is an added setback to the Erasmus scheme. The programme has already faced a significant blow in the past three academic years due to a significant decrease in students applying to study in the United Kingdom. Many European universities warned against their students applying to study in Britain due to the financial and academic uncertainties if the UK were to leave the scheme post-Brexit.
All is not lost, however. Thanks to modern technology, educational institutions have managed to adapt to online learning which has meant students can continue participating in their host university classes, albeit remotely. Language learning and cultural exchange can still take place via online communication methods. Despite these efforts, though, foreign exchange through technology undermines the importance of spending time in a different country. To really grasp how cultures and ways of life vary from country to country, it has to be experienced first-hand.
Looking to the future, the Erasmus scheme is still a priority for the European Union which was set to double its budget for the programme between 2021-2027. Whether this investment will go ahead as planned given the current climate remains to be seen.