The Erasmus exchange program may be more necessary than ever
Those who study abroad are more likely to work abroad later on. Amidst Europe's current finance woes, any edge in the job market can help. After 25 years, the Erasmus exchange program
may be more necessary than ever.
When Laura Casini was in kindergarten in Florence, she used to wave at planes because she wanted to fly. At some point, the waving stopped, but travel remained a dream - which she is now fulfilling with a study abroad broad.
Laura, now 21, left her university in Florence spend a year at the University of Bonn, studying German and literature. For her, it was a giant leap into adulthood.
"When I'm in Italy, I still live with my parents, so when I got here, I started to see how life works," Laura said.
Laura is one of around a quarter of a million students from more than 4,000 universities around Europe who are participating in the intra-European exchange program, Erasmus, this year.
Leaving home to live in another country has given her a sense of independence, Laura explained. It has been over six months since she arrived in Germany, but she wants to stay beyond the end of her studies.
"If I stay in Italy, it will be hard to find a job that's not being a waiter in a restaurant," Laura said, noting that there are more opportunities for young people in Germany.
People who have studied abroad are more than three times more likely to work abroad, according to research done by economist Matthias Parey, who co-authored the report, "Does studying abroad increase international labor mobility?"
More than two million students in Europe have taken part in Erasmus since it began in 1987. This makes it the world's largest exchange program and probably one of the major contributors to mobility in Europe.
But Erasmus has not made studying abroad straightforward for every kind of student. Marie Humpert, 26, studies business administration and is also the mother of a three-year-old girl.
"I thought studying abroad with a child would be easier in the Netherlands because it's closer to Germany," she said, noting that Holland has a very good childhood care system.
But things proved to be more difficult than she'd expected. Marie had to move to Amsterdam two months before the semester began because she had to be registered as a resident of the Netherlands to apply for spot in a pre-school for her daughter.
"I could only do it because of help from my family," Marie said.
She estimates that the move cost as much as 3,000 euros (nearly $4,000); Erasmus students receive a monthly stipend of just under 300 euros. Living costs can add up, depending on the student's needs and situation.
The European Commission has recognized that some students need additional funding, which it provides for students with special needs.
"This is a very political issue for the Commission," said Siegbert Wuttig, head of the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD.
In Germany, disabled students who get benefits or care from the state need to convince local authorities that studying abroad is essential for them, which involves a lot of red tape.
"Sometimes the families have trouble letting them go because it's very difficult sometimes, so it's not a question of funding alone," Wuttig added.
In 2011, the EU allocated more than 500 million euros to Erasmus, though the program could still suffer from austerity measures in countries that are badly affected by the European debt crisis. British institutions are considering putting a cap on the number of European students they can receive, following a fee hike that will be effective in the 2012-2013 school year.
"This could have a negative impact on the mobility," commented Wuttig. The UK already has more incoming students than outgoing ones: only one UK student comes to Germany for every three Germans going there.
A limit on the number of students could affect the choices of young people, who are already the group most affected by Europe's financial woes.
"In times of crisis, students would like to get some additional qualifications to be fit for the labor market," Wuttig said.
And, according to economist Matthias Parey, students who study abroad have the opportunity to create the networks that they need to live and work in that country - widening their chances of getting a job abroad.