Eurojar Feature - Erasmus Mundus: a wider cooperation window

Having the financial means is not always a must in order to study abroad. Since the year 2006, the European Union extended the margin of university bursaries Erasmus, previously reserved to European students, to cover today other countries, including the south Mediterranean. “Erasmus Mundus Partnership” programme aims at bringing closer the youth of both sides of the Mediterranean.
Nidale Abou Mrad - Eurojar

It is a sunny day of the month of November 2009; we are at the American University of Beirut. At the Reception Desk of International Students, Rami Jawhar was bustling around to put the final logistic touches for the preparation of a party held the same evening, honoring international students in this prestigious higher education institution, in the heart of the Lebanese capital, known as AUB.

This young man, with a bachelor of engineering, comes with a “fabulous” experience from the University of Masaryk in Brno, Czech Republic, where he studied for few months thanks to the Erasmus Mundus programme. Convinced that university exchanges between Europe and its southern neighbors is of great importance, he is well motivated to contribute in this matter in his present university. In fact, since he is back from the Czech Republic, Rami devotes more time to the AUB Club of international students.

On the other side is Giorgio Marinelli. With a big student backpack, this young Italian was there to resolve an “administrative issue” with Ms. Rania Murr, coordinator of international students’ affairs. To him, the Erasmus Mundus experience is in full swing: in fact, he has been, since last September, in Beirut in the framework of an exchange between the University of Bologna and AUB. He is finishing a Masters degree in international relations. Giorgio, 25, has chosen “The governance system in Palestinian refugees’ camps in Lebanon” as a topic for his dissertation.

A new world equation
After half an hour spent in this bureau, illuminated by a large windowpane giving on the Mediterranean Sea, one can virtually acknowledge that exchanges and university scholarships found their way through the ebb and flows of the Blue Sea tides. “L’Auberge espagnole” (or the Spanish hostel) is no more the privilege of European students. And the United States of America is not anymore the unique destination that attracts international students.

Aiming at being a real actor in cultural life and not only a backer of projects, the European Commission decided in 2006 to enlarge its Erasmus support programme -previously reserved to inter-European exchanges- to cover a broader range of beneficiaries in the world. Since then, several partnerships have been signed between institutions of member countries of the European Union and countries from the south of the Mediterranean, in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. The declared objective of the EU is “to make Europe a centre of university excellence”. While inviting universities from both sides of the Mediterranean to come closer and cooperate, the aim is to create a university consortium capable of competing with American institutions, known for their huge financial capacities. “The goal is to change the ongoing trend”, says European deputy Marielle De Sarnez.

It is worth noting that students’ mobility to Europe, outside the framework of this programme, was based on individual initiatives or on national scholarships. The novelty value of Erasmus Mundus is “in the upper scale of support and in the means that it offers: extremely encouraging financial support, as well as a well-structured framework that facilitates exchange,” explains the president of the University of Sfax in Tunisia, Hamed Ben Dhia.

How to know that Erasmus Mundus exists
But this programme still suffers from a lack of visibility in the eyes of concerned institutions. Students from Morocco, Lebanon and Syria interviewed on the phone agree on this reality. If in Europe, “university exchanges became part of the lifestyle thanks to Erasmus Mundus, established more than 22 years ago, the situation on the other side of the Mediterranean is not alike,” outlines Michel Dumas, coordinator of Erasmus Mundus in the Maghreb, also called Averroes project. “While asking for the help of professors to get letters of recommendations, students asserted that they never heard of this programme,” says Rami. He goes on to say:”None of my friends ever heard of this programme before. I was informed about it through the AUB’s Club of international students, in which I am a member.”

Once on the right track, perseverance and patience become the watchword. “Administrative routine and delays in obtaining answers from the appropriate sources make the procedure quite complex,” explain the beneficiaries. As for the selection criteria, “besides the excellent university scores required, students should show real motivation to live in an international milieu,” explains Rania Murr. Once the results announced, and in case of positive answer, the airline ticket is delivered to the beneficiary. The following destination is the airport. On the menu: a monthly allocation of approximately 1000 Euros, and a high level of education.

An enriching experience
Where does the originality of Erasmus Mundus reside? Students benefitting from this programme can study a whole year abroad and validate this year in their original university, as if they completed the courses there. For this reason, a European system of transfer of credits has been created. Without having to waste their time, students continue their education and discover at the same time a new country. Mastering perfect English and proud of the few Arabic words that he learnt during his stay in Beirut, Giorgio acknowledges: “Being in Beirut is an opportunity to live personal fulfillment as well as great academic experience. Professors are offering me great help in my research work. It is a support that I would have never got anywhere else.”

It is with great enthusiasm that he perceives the series of visits that he was able to plan inside Palestinian camps. He does not feel less excitement when he starts to relate about the “great joy of hanging around every night in the cafés and night clubs of the cosmopolitan street of Hamra, nearby AUB. It is a fascinating and breathtaking ambiance. In this small district, journalists, artists and intellectuals gather and party, despite the political differences that tear up the country.” Being the first in Syria to benefit from Erasmus Mundus partnership, Hassan Haija says:”Erasmus is probably the most significant experience that will remain engraved in my memory. Nice and memorable moments marked this period of exchange more than anything else during the past 21 years of my life. Just imagine 300 students from different backgrounds and cultures living under the same roof. They become like one family.”

Don’t we say that it is through others that we get to know ourselves? Rami acquiesces: “Here in Lebanon, everybody knows everybody. Human ties are very strong. In Czech Republic, I discovered that the world is great and complex. I had to start asking questions about myself, my culture. I learnt how to be more open-minded.” Hassan is of a like mind: “Once back in Damascus, I went back right away to university and work. The only thing that changed was my personality and the way I look at life.”

The post-mobility process: a hard experience
“Once back in their countries, there is no doubt that beneficiaries are more confident in their future. They feel privileged in comparison with their fellows,” explains Rania Murr. Yet, “beyond the excitement of the international experience, no follow-up is undertaken with the students once back in their countries,” she stresses. The result is a great frustration from the side of the beneficiary, who does not have the chance to relate and evaluate his experience, or plan for the post-mobility step. “We are working on creating an Erasmus Mundus association in the Maghreb. However, there is still a lot to be done. It is normal since the programme just turned one year old,” explains Michel Dumas.

In the meantime, Rami is still an active member of the international students’ club at AUB. Yet, his aspirations are far beyond that. He intends to benefit from a two-year Erasmus Mundus scholarship, of which he will spend every six months in a different country! It would be his chance to live, one more time, an incomparable cross-cultural experience. Giorgio, on the other side, is overwhelmed with his research work inside the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. He intends to go back to Lebanon after defending his dissertation next March in the University of Bologna. Back to Beirut, outside the framework of Erasmus Mundus program, he will have the chance to “spend more time to learn the Arabic language and explore quietly the mysteries of the bubbling city of Beirut.”

How to benefit from the Programme
Erasmus Mundus, also called “External Cooperation Window” during its first phase of implementation (2004-2008), became “Erasmus Mundus Partnership” in the second phase (2009-2013). The programme offers several support programs with variable durations:
- Students’ exchanges at all levels: from the bachelor degree to post-doctorate.
- University and administrative personnel exchanges.

Erasmus Mundus partnerships are divided into 21 geographic lots, corresponding to the different regions in the world. 4 lots are consecrated to the 8 south Mediterranean countries.

To benefit from this programme, visit the following websites:

- Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia: www.network-averroes.com
- Egypt: www.erasmusmundus2.eu
- Palestine: www.erasmusmundus2.eu
- Syria, Jordan and Lebanon: www.erasmuswindow3.org

Eligible organisms:
Each Erasmus Mundus partnership involves at least 5 institutions from 3 European countries and several higher education institutions from the countries concerned by the calls for proposal.

For more information, visit the website of the European Commission, EuropeAid office. You will find a detailed guide for the Erasmus Mundus programme:

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