Brendan O'Malley. The Polish presidency of the European Union is planning to expand the Erasmus student and staff exchange programme to non-EU countries on its eastern and southern borders.
Barbara Kudrycka (pictured), the Polish Minister for Higher Education, said on Tuesday: "We would very much like to see a widening of the Erasmus-scheme to non-EU countries, not only our Eastern neighbors but also for example the ones in the southern neighbourhood. In my view, the best diplomats for countries are students and scientists."
She was speaking at the 22nd European Students' Convention in the Polish city of Lazy on Tuesday, a four-day event organised by the European Students Union, the umbrella organisation of 45 national unions of students from 38 European countries.
Kudrycka has previously called for all students from Eastern Partnership countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - to be given the opportunity of studying in EU countries.
Allan Päll, the ESU's chairperson, backed the drive to expand Erasmus. "We think education mobility enriches the life of students, both from an educational and social perspective. Moreover, we firmly believe that mobility supports European integration." But he said that as well as enlargement of the scheme there should be an increase in the size of grants, especially for students who are less well off, as the biggest obstacle to mobility was lack of financial means.
The vast majority of European universities take part in Erasmus. More than 2.2 million students have participated since it started in 1987, as well as 250,000 higher education teachers and other staff since 1997. It has an annual budget of more than EUR450 million (US$648 million), and more than 4,000 higher education institutions in 33 countries participate, with others waiting to join.
An overriding aim of the programme is to help create a 'European Higher Education Area' and foster innovation throughout Europe. In addition to enabling students to study in another country for part of their degree - 'transnational mobility' - Erasmus helps higher education institutions to work together through intensive programmes, networks and multilateral projects.
In July, Kudrycka said one of the priorities of the presidency of the EU, which Poland holds until December, is mobility for PHD students. She said the presidency wanted to not only decrease legal and formal barriers to Eastern Partnership countries and increase in funding for mobility with them, but to include these countries in the Erasmus scheme.
"Today we consider mobility is an essential of the European Communitybecause mobility is an emanation of freedom and therefore the eastern dimension of mobility is becoming even more important," she said. "Students from European Partnership countries should be given the possibility of studying in EU counties on the same terms as students from EU countries."
According to the European Commission, Erasmus has become a driver in the modernisation of higher education institutions and systems in Europe and, in particular, inspired the establishment of the Bologna Process. There are plans to expand the programme to reach three million Erasmus students by 2012, the commission says.
Currently the scheme operates in the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK.