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Budget cuts jeopardise study-abroad programmes

Monday, 4 October, 2010 - 20:24

The European Union has a policy of promoting university foreign-exchange programmes within the community. But now, austerity is also on the agenda. Host countries are wondering if they can afford scholarships for young Europeans who plan to go home as soon as they complete their degrees.

Europe's ambitions sometimes exceed its means. In 2008, the Union resolved to do everything possible to enable 20% of its university students to spend at least one quarter in a different EU country. However, the need to rein in public spending may now compromise this goal. Student mobility is costly for both institutions and individual students. Universities are also beginning to fret about the funding necessary to cope with a higher volume of exchange, especially when some countries are more sought-after than others.

Austria is feeling the pinch

In an interview published in the German weekly Die Zeit, Karlheinz Töchterle, rector of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, recently spoiled the party. 18,000 students from neighbouring Germany are currently enrolled in Austrian universities. And not for a semester or two: most complete their degrees on the Austrian side of the Alps. "To cope with the influx of foreign students, we need bigger facilities, and we cannot build them without more funding," he noted. Because additional public funding is nearly impossible to obtain in these belt-tightening times, Dr. Töchterle suggested two other solutions: either Innsbruck will extend the quota system it has for its medical school to other programs, or the countries which "export" their students must contribute to financing their studies abroad. "Dear Germany, you send us your students, but please give us the money we need to welcome them properly," he protested.

Sweden saves millions of euros

Further criticism followed swiftly, and was shockingly accurate. Die Zeit's next article about higher education squarely accused Stockholm of encouraging young Swedes to study abroad simply in order to save on the national university budget at home. Swedish students who apply to foreign universities receive an allowance of 300 euros per month while abroad. Additional funding is available for insurance and travel expenses. Tuition fees for special programmes are also covered.
Citing the case of a Swedish medical student who trains in Germany and returns to Sweden to practice, once he has his diploma in his pocket, Die Zeit calculated that his schooling cost the German state €25,210 per year. Meanwhile, Sweden got a new doctor for an outlay of only €3,600 a year. Quite a difference! And if the result is extrapolated to the 29,600 Swedish university students on study-abroad scholarships, Die Zeit estimates that Stockholm has saved several hundred million euros.

France becomes more selective

Cost effectiveness is also being debated in France. For years, French universities were eager to enrol increasing numbers of foreign students. Now, more and more institutions are emphasizing the "quality" rather than "quantity" of applicants. As a result, France's Erasmus program now focuses on foreign students applying to post-graduate programmes: BA studies are now considered too general to be relevant, whereas at the master's or doctoral level, students are acquiring specialized skills. Likewise, French institutions stand to benefit by an admissions policy which identifies and encourages the most gifted foreign applicants to enrol in its doctoral programmes. This is for the simple reason that the number of students pursuing doctoral studies in a university has a direct impact on the institution's standing in international rankings.

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