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Meet the woman who changed Europe by founding the Erasmus programme


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At the height of last summer, a remarkable Italian professor by the name of Sofia Corradi travelled to Spain to receive the prestigious Carlos V European Award.

In a ceremony presided over by the Spanish Royal Family, the award, some of whose previous recipients include Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev, might well have gone to Corradi for her personal achievements alone. Her remarkable career includes work at New York City’s Columbia University, at the UN Commission on Human Rights, and at the London School of Economics. Corradi has taught for over fifty years at the Three State University in Rome, authoring countless journals in several languages, including English, French, Spanish and Russian.

But Corradi, the second woman to receive the award, was garlanded instead for an achievement that has changed the lives of millions across the continent: The Erasmus Exchange Programme, which this year marks its 30th birthday. Corradi began lobbying for such a program in the 1960s, it taking her over 20 years to get it up and running in 1987.

Today, Erasmus, named after a 15th century philosopher who travelled the world in search of new knowledge, allows students to immerse themselves in nearby, but often very different, European countries.

The award committee, which seeks to emphasise achievements of diversity, understanding and freedom, chose Corradi with the knowledge that over 3.5 million European students in 28 countries, and across 4,000 universities, have benefited from her legacy since the program began. Evoking Carlos V, after whom the award is named and whose empire it was said the sun would never set, the professor added that ‘in a more peaceful world than the one we see today Erasmus will become a global project, on which the sun will also never set.’

I can remember the excitement with which I read an email from the University of Oslo last spring, informing me that they’d be delighted to have me as an Erasmus exchange student in Norway for a year. Since arriving here I have greatly enjoyed the programme’s two main benefits – the lack of any additional tuition fees, and the opportunity to meet students from all around Europe. Spain, France and Germany are both the largest receivers and senders of foreign students; the UK ranks fourth, but sends only half as many students as it receives.

Whilst here, I have met students from beyond Europe, from places such as Korea, Australia and the United States, but it still seems as if us Europeans have the best deal. According to the Insitute of International Education, about 10% of all European students now study abroad, in comparison to just 1% of US students whole enrol in similar programmes. It is not difficult to understand why the Italian writer Umberto Eco wrote in La Stampa a few years ago, hailing the programme for creating ‘a new generation of young Europeans.’

Eco’s comments were more literal than he may have intended, as recent studies have found that a quarter of all Erasmus students meet long-term partners on their overseas adventures, and that such relationships have produced an additional million European babies since 1987.

As well as serving as an enabler of new relationships, Erasmus is also good for the CV and life prospects, as it has been found exchange students have enjoyed a higher level of mobility after graduation, with two in five going on to work in other countries, and a third settling down with a foreign life partner.

Whilst here in Norway, I have met many people, particularly those from very far away, who have fallen in love with the country as well as people and have resolved to move back here in the future. The same must certainly be the case for countless others across the continent.

However, the programme is not without its critics. A few years ago, one of its co-founders, Franck Biancheri, said Erasmus was falling behind the times. In the 1980s, Biancheri had worked to convince then French President Francois Mitterrand to back the scheme, but a few years ago, he said it was no longer delivering value for money, and that in future it should focus instead on entrepreneurships rather than funding exchanges.

Erasmus costs more than 440 million Euros a year, and in these austere times an expensive programme aimed entirely at young people is obviously going to draw criticism from some quarters. Corradi herself has had to dismiss attacks that the programme only benefits the wealthiest, saying that exchange grants, which vary greatly in amount depending on the country, are only piecemeal: "Erasmus funding was always aimed to cover only the additional expenses that foreign students have on top of what they would normally spent in their own countries," she has said.

But despite these shortcomings, the proof of the pudding is surely in the post-exchange indigestion. Returning home from their time abroad, hundreds of students have reported the boredom, anxiety and depression they have felt after their exchanges ended. "The former Erasmus student knows that when they return, their homes feel less glamorous, their towns colder, their universities seem like dumps, the television still shabby and their friends lousy," said Fiorella de Nicola, an Italian student who devoted her sociology thesis to the 'Anthropology of the Erasmus student.'

Post-Erasmus syndrome, as de Nicola called it, is perhaps the most difficult part of studying abroad, but the more acute the suffering obviously means the more the student has enjoyed themselves. "At home, life becomes very simple again and a little empty because all the new things are one of the components of the Erasmus experience," Juliane, who went to study modern languages in Glasgow, told Cafe Babel. "You head back home afterwards and you realise that everything is exactly the same as it was when you left. Yet inside us, everything has changed."

In an attempt to overcome this problem, some former Erasmus students have tried to host international parties and embark on further foreign trips, although it seems unlikely that the sensation of being abroad can ever be fully re-created.

At a time when the freedom and relative stability of the European continent looks increasingly fragile, and when other tenants of the European Union – such as the Euro and the Schengen free movement policy – face uncertain futures, the Erasmus exchange programme, though imperfect, has been an unquestionable success story. Britain’s vote the leave the European Union in the same summer Corradi received her award possibly endangers our country’s future access to the scheme. The decision, which needless to say most young British voters did not endorse, is a direct challenge to Corradi’s belief in openness and freedom. I can remember well the first morning of post-Brexit Britain, when I received a torrent of emails frantically reassuring me that my impending move to Norway would still go ahead.

Beyond that, however, the future looks less certain. The fate of Erasmus for British students is about as clear as the rest of the government’s agenda for our EU withdrawal, but leaving the community does not necessarily mean our access to the scheme will end, as many non-EU countries, such as Turkey, Switzerland, and of course Norway, are still fully involved in the magnificent project. It is therefore the job of the many current and ex-students in Britain who have benefited from the programme in the last 30 years to defend our access to a scheme, which so many previous generations, for whom Europe was a strange and distant place, could only dream of.

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