ECF and the Erasmus Exchange Programme - 30 years of student exchange

Find out more details in the Fact Sheet  From Erasmus to Erasmus+: a story of 30 years

Find out more details in the Fact Sheet From Erasmus to Erasmus+: a story of 30 years

The ERASMUS programme is widely regarded as one of the most important cultural and educational initiatives in post-war European history. This pioneering initiative in European inter-university cooperation was adopted by the Council of the European Communities in 1987. It was designed to enhance student mobility and higher education cooperation in the European Community by providing financial support to universities, students and staff for organising exchanges and other forms of cooperation. The role of the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) in developing ERASMUS (and later TEMPUS and EURYDICE) is little known among the public and does not appear in official texts.



From Plan Europe 2000 to Erasmus

The involvement of ECF in the development of the ERASMUS programme already dates back to the decade prior to its official launch in 1987. From the early 1970s onwards, the Commission of the European Community had been developing two projects for inter-university cooperation and student mobility, known as the Joint Study Programmes and Short Study Visits schemes. They were the immediate predecessors of ERASMUS. The organisation and execution of the two pilot-projects were entrusted to ECF’s European Institution of Education and Social Policies (EIESP) in Paris and its Office for Cooperation in Education (OCE) in Brussels.

It was not a coincidence that ECF was chosen as the organisation to provide the Commission with the necessary support for the implementation and management of the two pilot-projects. The Foundation and the Commission had already worked together before, when they had co-founded the European Institution of Education and Social Policies in 1975, with the aim of advancing educational cooperation in Europe. Moreover, by entrusting ECF with the management support of its higher education schemes, the Commission profited from the Foundation’s international academic network, insights and networking experience that were derived from its Plan Europe 2000 project (1967-1975) and subsequently developed by the EIESP.

Though the decision to provide financial support to a project was ultimately always taken by the Commission (as would later be the case for ERASMUS also), the staff of ECF’s Office for Cooperation in Education had in fact significant influence through their contacts with the academic community and their role in pre-selecting the projects for support. From the early 1980s onwards, the OCE, underpinned by the Foundation’s financial management staff, was also given the responsibility for managing the payment of grants to the projects supported.

Working towards European integration

When the more extensive ERASMUS programme was adopted in 1987, it was natural that the Commission turned again to ECF to provide the necessary technical assistance for its management in order to build on its experience with the predecessor schemes. Raymond Georis – ECF’s Secretary General between 1973 and 1995 – enthusiastically supported this initiative, seeing it as an excellent way to further ECF’s mission to foster European cooperation. Alan Smith, the Director of OCE, became the head of the newly created ERASMUS Bureau, where he was joined by the other OCE staff. The structure of the ERASMUS resembled closely that of the former Joint Study Programmes scheme, but the large budget, for student grants in particular, that was now added to it greatly increased the volume and the level of the responsibility involved.

The main activities of the ERASMUS Bureau involved providing advice to universities to promote the twinning of institutes, processing grants applications, evaluating results of the programme, and developing and negotiating a credit transfer system (ECTS) among European universities. The ERASMUS Bureau, under the executive leadership of Alan Smith, played this key role from 1987 through 1995, employing about 70 staff in the Bureau through the ECF contract. Throughout these years, Raymond Georis, Allan Smith and the ERASMUS Bureau staff members worked closely with Hywel Ceri Jones and Domenico Lenarduzzi, the senior education officials at the Commission, reporting regularly to the Commission on developments.

Both Smith and Jones see the close association in the development of ERASMUS as an outstanding example of how public-private partnership can function productively and effectively at European level. Smith also considers ECF’s ‘ERASMUS years’ as a good example of one important dimension of how the Foundation worked effectively for European integration, namely by being an independent and impartial provider of operational services in the educational field:

"From the Foundation’s point of view, this activity represented far more than just a welcome opportunity to obtain lucrative European contracts. Playing the role of an agent responsible for assisting the Commission and thereby helping to bring major European initiatives to fruition through the composition of multinational staff teams with the necessary experience and insights, enabled the Foundation at the same time to achieve some of the key objectives that it had set itself in the promotion of multilateral educational cooperation in Europe – objectives that could not possible have been achieved to the same extent as without the large-scale funds provided by the Community programmes. In this way, through a kind of strategic partnership between the private not-for-profit sector and the public sector at European level, the Foundation was able to be associated in a constructive manner with a highly regarded European initiative at the very centre of the concerns addressed in its own mission statement.  To have recognized this opportunity, at the very right moment was very much the contribution of Raymond Georis. To have pursued it with such energy was typical of his commitment to enhancing the Foundation’s capacity and profile in the educational field and to develop the operational side of its activities." (Smith 1995, 122).

A foundation for inter-European cooperation

All in all, ECF’s major project – Plan Europe 2000 – provided the intellectual stimulus that led to the creation of the European Institute of Education and Social Policies in Paris, which was conceived by Raymond Georis as an independent, catalytic source of forward thinking and support for European initiatives in the field of post-compulsory education. It was this institute, with its unique flexibility or response and European commitment that was selected in the mid-1970s by the European Commission to build the foundation stones of practical inter-university cooperation from which the ERASMUS programme could be successfully launched in the 1980s.

Having turned out to be an eye-catching public success of European policy-making, the Commission was understandably eager to ensure that the programme was seen to be an EC initiative. While it has been argued that the ERASMUS programme was really a European Commission scheme, and that the role of ECF was purely administrative, Raymond Georis has emphasised the important role of the ERASMUS Bureau in the implementation and development of the programme, pointing out that it determined how the funds were to be distributed throughout the Member States, executed the initial screening of applications, and maintained a balance between the different disciplines: “Without the Bureau, the Commission would be unable to take decisions. The role of the ERASMUS Bureau is therefore one of intelligent administration, requiring thoughtful decision-making” (Board of Governors, 27 May 1988).

ECF’s involvement in delivering such a visible and successful European scheme had clear benefits in terms of increasing public recognition of its role and significance. This recognition was of importance in furthering objectives in other areas of activity. While the Foundation was generally not visible, Commission officials, however, have occasionally given public recognition to the effective and creative support the ECF staff provided in the operational management of the programme. The creative influence of the Foundation in this period centred around the organisation of a large-scale networking aspect of the programme, the implementation of which was crucial to its success and development. ERASMUS is a neat illustration of how the experience and network of the private European Cultural Foundation could serve the public organs of the European Community.

            At the same time, however, ECF’s involvement in the rapidly expanding ERASMUS programme also confronted the Foundation with strategic and management challenges of a new dimension. The sheer success of ERASMUS meant that the budget for this part of ECF’s activities gradually came to represent an increasingly high proportion of its total turnover, and caused the Foundation’s ERASMUS Bureau to become a rather disproportionate member of the administrative structure. With its payroll of up to around 70 staff, the Bureau was increasingly felt to represent a potential risk to the Foundation’s stability should the ERASMUS contract come to an end. ECF therefore started to define new priorities and explore new ways to organise its activities. It sought to make the members of its network independent, to become an initiator and catalyst rather than an administrator or independent management structure. When the ERASMUS contract with the Commission came up for renewal in 1994, ECF decided not to tender for it.