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Opinion: Erasmus+ is the perfect vehicle for deepening our next generation’s place in Europe

Published: Thu, 09 September 2021

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The debacle of Brexit has shown us that Ireland’s place is in the EU and that we need to renew our engagement with our friends on mainland Europe. As students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow, the EU Erasmus student exchange programme is the perfect vehicle for this. With a 7-year budget of more than €26 billion (nearly double the funding of its predecessor programme) and the void left by Brexit, now is the time for Irish institutions and students to take advantage of Erasmus+.

It’s that time of year again: back to school. Young people across the country are receiving first round of CAO offers, which will determine where they spend the coming academic year living and studying. Some third-level students are equally nervous about what awaits them as they embark on study exchanges as part of the Erasmus+ program.

As a former teacher, I am a long-time advocate of Erasmus. The programme was first set up nearly 35 years ago to facilitate study exchange programs for higher education students all across Europe, from Paris to Bucharest. Since then, nine million people have participated in it, and it has been extended to include apprentices, researchers, teachers and youth workers.

The educational opportunities on offer on Erasmus go far beyond the curriculum. Erasmus helps to broaden the perspectives of participants and is about personal, social and professional development, in addition to the academics. For many, it is their first time studying, working or living abroad with people of different nationalities and cultures. This rich experience broadens minds, fosters new personal international connections, and boosts intercultural awareness, as well as improving employment prospects both at home and abroad.

A further obvious benefit of Erasmus+ is the unique opportunity to improve foreign language fluency. You can learn the fundamentals of grammar in class, but every language student will tell you that there is no substitute for experiencing the intricacies of a language and colloquialisms of native speakers on a daily basis.

This summer a bright young UCC student, Jill Hosford, completed a research project in conjunction with my office that focused on the effects of the Erasmus+ student exchange on European identity and awareness of the EU institutions amongst Irish students. The result of Jill’s work showed that despite all the tangible benefits of Erasmus, a disappointing portion of students stated that the partaking in the programme did not increase their knowledge of the EU institutions. This is a real missed opportunity for the European Commission to connect directly with more young people.

Every year, a number of Irish students in Strasbourg undergo work experience in my office. They get to see up close how the European Parliament functions and the characters involved, with several now working in the EU or in the diplomatic service. I also visit schools and third-level institutions across my constituency to help teach our next generation about the workings of the EU and the brilliant career opportunities that exist in its institutions, particularly for Gaeilgeoirí.

To promote Irish interests, we need Irish people working in the EU. We are well represented at the moment, and are known to punch above our weight diplomatically, but we need to encourage and support the next generation to continue this legacy. Erasmus+ has a key role to play in encouraging the next generation to pursue careers in the EU.

Much to the dismay of many academics and students, the UK opted to leave the Erasmus+ program. Thankfully, the Irish government has ensured Northern Irish students will continue to participate post-Brexit. About 8,000 students come to Ireland every year through the Erasmus+ program already, and now that we are the biggest English speaking Erasmus destination, there is a huge opportunity for Irish third level institutions to attract even more EU students and further integrate our higher education institutions into international academic networks, thereby increasing their reputation and international standing.

Overall, my advice to students on both sides of the border is clear; if you have an opportunity to take part in the Erasmus student exchange, grab it with both hands. It is not something you will regret, and you might just make friends for life and open doors you were not even aware existed.

Seán Kelly is a Member of the European Parliament, leading the Fine Gael delegation in Brussels. A former teacher, he is a strong proponent of EU education, youth and sports programs.

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