Katherine Donnelly: A world of opportunity has opened up for all
It is an Irishman who is described as the "Father of Erasmus". Peter Sutherland was appointed Ireland's EU Commissioner in 1985 and, for one year, his brief included education. It was long enough for him to conceive a lasting legacy for learners the world over. It was named Erasmus, and now it has grown into Erasmus+.
Erasmus+ is the EU flagship education and training programme and funds students, staff, youth and voluntary workers, from all walks of life, to explore opportunities abroad. Some travel and bring new experiences and skills back with them. Others stay close to home but find their world has expanded just the same. It's a two-way process: European colleagues learn from us too!
In 1987, Erasmus opened the door for undergraduates to spend time in another European higher education institution - Erasmus+ incorporates a variety of similar EU programmes that previously operated for other sectors. It has pushed out its boundaries in other ways and, since 2015, there is the possibility to go to all continents.
The programme benefits individuals, but is also a platform for organisations, public and private, to get involved in joint learning ventures at an international level. The participation in Ireland of primary and second-level schools, education and training boards, universities and institutes of technology, as well as well-known community organisations like the Peter McVerry Trust and Age Action, gives a flavour of its diverse reach.
Erasmus+ has three categories, known as key actions: Key Action 1 (KA1) allows organisations to send staff, trainers, students, or young people abroad on exchanges, placements, to study, or for professional experience, such as job shadowing, training, volunteering, or work experience; Key Action 2 is for strategic partnerships to facilitate cooperation between organisations for innovation and the exchange of good practices; Key Action 3 (KA3) supports policy reform.
In 1987, 112 adventurous Irish undergraduates were among the Erasmus pioneers. That number has grown to more than 3,000 higher education students a year from Ireland, together with about 9,000 people from other walks of life, and there is scope, and funding, for many more participants: between 2014 and 2020 the EU is providing close to €170m to Ireland for this purpose.
In Ireland, funding is channelled through two agencies: the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which manages the programme at third-level along with the EU Sports initiative, and Léargas, which is responsible for schools and the adult education, vocational education and training and youth and volunteering sectors.
Where once Erasmus may have been seen as a handy passport to foreign language learning, Erasmus+ is much more than that, offering its participants, an unparalleled opportunity to learn and grow together regardless of borders, and to develop the competences essential to live and work effectively in a globalised world.
In an interview last year with the UCD student newspaper, the University Observer, Peter Sutherland recalled that his "ultimate objective was the process of integration between Europeans rather than the purely educational advantages that it would give.
"The reality was that we needed to create a new attitude to the EU which we still need to do today, This requires […] people to recognise a common cultural and value-based system the European countries share; and not to feel alien and different from others."
Katherine Donnelly is Education Editor of the Irish Independent