By Andrea Swalec
BRUSSELS - Nearly 200,000 students are now choosing to spend a year abroad as part of the European Union's Erasmus programme, one sign of increasing integration across the EU, new figures show.
The number travelling abroad to study or work as interns as part of Erasmus, set up in 1987 to encourage student exchanges throughout Europe, rose by nearly 9 percent to 198,600 in 2008/09 from the previous academic year, the EU said.
France, Germany and Spain sent the most students abroad, and were also the most popular destinations for other students to visit, according to figures from the European Commission.
Erasmus, which is often the first opportunity European students get to study abroad and whose popularity inspired the 2002 French film "L'Auberge Espagnole", was set up with the aim of getting at least 3 million students to trade places by 2012.
Named after the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, a hardened opponent of dogmatism who studied throughout Europe, the programme is open to all 27 EU member states as well as Iceland, Liechenstein, Norway, Turkey and Switzerland.
Some academics have even suggested that Erasmus has done more to foster pan-Europeanism than any other EU-backed programme, with young students fondly remembering their time abroad, learning a new language and developing a soft-spot for the places where they spent their 3 to 12-month exchange.
Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner in charge of education, said the programme was essential to improving the employability of future generations of Europeans.
"Allowing young people to be mobile for learning should be seen in the wider context of our efforts to improve their personal development and job prospects," she told reporters this week as she unveiled the latest figures.
The EU awards Erasmus funds according to the number of students each country attracts. As a result, Vassiliou said France, Germany and Spain had each garnered around 50 million euros (S$85mil) in 2008. But other countries are catching up.
Turkey, which is in talks to become an EU member, has worked hard to try to attract more Erasmus students, a sign of its desire to connect with the next generation of Europeans, who may as a result end up looking more favourably on its membership prospects than French and German leaders currently do.
"I saw a tremendous wish to send and receive more students,"Vassiliou said of Turkey, which she visited last week to look at its progress with modernizing university facilities, offering more courses in English and improving student housing.
The programme does not only serve students, she said. "It's also a great benefit to the countries who participate."