ESU Statement on Multi-annual Financial Framework EU 2014-2020

25.08.2011
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Brussels, 23 August 2011
Reaction to the Proposal for a new Multiannual Financial Framework

ESU calls for radical re-allocation of EU funds to increase investments in Higher Education

ESU welcomes the Commission proposal for a new Multiannual Financial Framework for 2014-2020 and sees the increase made in investments in education as a good initiative. Despite there is a certain progress reflected in the proposals, ESU fears that the overall investment level into higher education is not proportional. If the EU wants to succeed with the Europe 2020 strategy, a clear and radical re-allocation of EU funds towards these benchmarks is needed. With this paper we would like to give our comment on the proposal and recommendations for priorities to be made in the further negotiations for a final framework.

It is ESU’s belief that the strong emphasis given to education and training in the Europe 2020 strategy and the follow-up flagship initiatives, especially Youth on the Move, must be coupled with concrete financial support in new learning mobility programmes and through making higher education a priority in the cohesion funds.

The newly proposed Education Europe Programme, uniting the Lifelong Learning Programme, Erasmus Mundus and Youth in Action has a significantly higher budget than in the 2007-2013 framework. However, ESU fears that the proposed increases beyond 2012 budget level will still be insufficient to cover the expectations and benchmarks in all sub-areas (all education levels, youth policy, sport policy etc). Therefore the Education Europe Programme should be increased or given clearer priorities linked to existing benchmarks (hereunder the proposed 20% higher education mobility target).

Even with the progress in the new programme, the overall investment level into higher education is not yet proportional with the expectations driven by the strategic importance in achieving the Europe 2020 targets. Therefore there should be a radical re-allocation of EU funds towards the priorities listed in Europe 2020, especially noting education and training and the mobility programmes. A stronger priority of higher education should be implemented in the Structural Funds with increased investments in actions aimed at reaching the 40% tertiary education attainment benchmark, the Bologna Process and the Modernisation Agenda for Higher Education.

ESU’s priorities for the new Multiannual Financial Framework in short:
1.    Strengthen the new Education Europe Programme through prioritising increased budget to higher numbers and quality student mobility support.
2.    Scrap the plans for a EU Mobility Loan Scheme.
3.    Reinforce investments into increasing access and quality in Higher Education through the Structural Funds, while supporting higher education reforms implementing the Bologna Process and the Modernisation Agenda for Higher Education.

Priority 1: Strengthen the new Education Europe Programme to meet the 20% mobility target

ESU is a strong supporter of continuing and reinforcing the learning mobility programmes in the next financial framework and welcomes the priority given to this by the Commission proposal. However significant questions remain to be answered regarding the merged Education Europe programme.
The Erasmus programme as the largest sub-programme of the Lifelong Learning Programme has so far proven to be popular and successful in supporting mobility in higher education. Reinforcing the investments into the Erasmus Programme is a necessary step to realise the ambitious 20% mobility target adopted in the Bologna Process (which is also expected to be adopted in the EU). The next financial framework should aim at doubling the share of higher education students experiencing an Erasmus exchange by 2020, reaching out to approximately 10% of the graduates and 500 000 students each year.

The new Education Europe programme should be significantly increased compared to today’s level (proposed 2012 budget). The proposal from the Commission on €15.2bn is a leap ahead compared to 2007-2013. However, this must be seen as a minimum for reaching the targets for 2020.
Through the Erasmus programme, the new programme should prioritise individual mobility with focus on tertiary education. However, in order to allow increased availability, attractiveness and social equality, the average size of Erasmus grants will have to increase. Financial barriers are the most important factor restricting Erasmus participation . Today Erasmus students are on average given a monthly grant of €250 to cover their costs, which is by far insufficient, succeeding to only cover a fraction of the necessary financing for living, travel costs and fees. MFF appropriations to Erasmus should be made sufficient to cover an increase of €150 raising the average to €400 by 2020.
Within the Education Europe programme, greater attention should be given to the Social Dimension. Equal access to mobility for all should be prioritized and included as a target in the new programme, with a special focus on ensuring fair and equal access policies and broadening the diversity of the student population becoming mobile.

Erasmus Mundus
The nature of the Erasmus Mundus programme should be reformed to aim at a wider public and give emphasis to the social function of learning mobility. Brain drain lingers in many aspects of these programmes. Education should be a public good and not a commodity. Therefore ESU proposes to use the positive experiences from the Erasmus programme with mutual exchange in the Erasmus Mundus programme. Furthermore ESU calls for a more reciprocal cooperation within Erasmus Mundus with non-EU countries. At the same time the largest imbalance of mobility between EU and the rest of the world is the huge deficit of European students studying abroad globally. ESU recommends that a target of balanced mobility should be established and backed up with financing supporting credit or degree mobility on a worldwide basis in the new programme.


Priority 2: Scrap the plans for a EU Mobility Loan Scheme

The Commission proposes a new financing mechanism for mobile Master students through offering them loans that will be provided by banks that benefit from a EU loan guarantee. ESU has taken note of the attempts to explore the feasibility of a mobility loans scheme, however ESU is sure that a loan scheme is unlikely to be attractive and effective as there is a high risk the loans will be very expensive for students, especially for students coming from low earning EU countries.

In order to meet the 20% mobility target for 2020, efforts made to support mobility should be attractive enough to motivate new students potentially considering studying in another EU country for longer or shorter periods. The best way to ensure this is to provide more Erasmus grants and portable loans and grants from national schemes, which involve a lesser financial burden on mobile students.

There is a high risk that the loans will be very expensive for students, especially students coming from low earning EU countries.  ESU is afraid there will not be an adequate subsidy of the loans through EU financing the operational costs, risk margins and default of loan repayments. Thus due to the high risk of defaults, the interest rates are unlikely to be kept at a modest level.

At the same time, ESU is concerned over the trend of European students increasingly accumulating large debts through their studies. This trend is also harmful for the attractiveness of mobility and is risking to further increase the inequality-gap in mobility. Studies underscore that the deterrence factor in mobility participation is not the availability of direct financing such as access to student loans or family resources, but rather the students’ [from lower socio-economic groups] sensitivity towards additional expenditures associated with a period of study abroad . Therefore, the target group that would most benefit from the loan scheme is unlikely to take out such a loan to finance a mobility period.

Many member states today already provide portable loans and grants for their students as committed through in the Bologna Process, and increasing the access to portable loans and grants should be prioritised in all member states.  the suggested bank guarantee model for loan distribution also leaves a sensitive higher education policy-question out of the hands of governments, EU administration and stakeholders. Because of the abovementioned reasons ESU recommends that the European Parliament and the Council scrap the loan scheme idea in the Education Europe Programme and re-allocate the available funding to improving the Erasmus programme.

Priority 3: Reinforce access to higher education through the Structural Funds

The commitments to increase access and success in higher education through EU’s Structural Funds, as set out in the Europe 2020 Strategy, should be reflected more in the budget. EU financing should be targeted more effectively towards reaching a real system of lifelong learning where anyone is welcome to participate at any point in time.

Education and training projects constitute a relative large share of Structural Funds in the current framework and have the biggest potential in influencing national reforms. Especially the great commitment to increase access and quality in higher education with the Europe 2020 benchmark of 40% attainment should be given a strong priority.

In order to increase the quality of European higher education and reach the political aims made in the Bologna Process and the Modernisation Agenda for Higher Education (new Communication expected in 2011), implementation of commitments by member should be supported by financial incentives. The best way of implementing these reform agendas effectively is to couple policy recommendations together with supporting actions with EU funds. ESU recommends that EU funds are geared at actions supporting curricula reforms leading to high quality, flexible and more individually tailored education paths, innovative teaching methods and Student Centered Learning as well as reinforcing the Social Dimension of higher education.

Through National Reform Programmes member states have outlined important reforms in higher education for the next years. However, ESU is still worried that the incentives for increasing ambitions and investing in higher education are insufficient to reach the targets. Therefore EU funding should be used as an extra incentive to release more investments into education and training.

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