The necessity of an academic cooperation program at Latin America and the Caribbean level: the experience of the EU-program Erasmus and of LAC integration systems

The EU-program Erasmus is a tool that allows students, researchers and teachers to carry out academic and professional exchange periods of time in Higher Education Institutions (HEI) in other European countries, the so-called programme countries (the 28 of the EU, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Norway, and Turkey), as well as in Third countries, the program partner countries (including all of the LAC countries). Launched in 1987, the name of the program Erasmus stands for European Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. It is part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and works by multiannual financial frameworks: we are currently in the 2014-2020 framework, following the 2007-2013 one. This program has been one of the best achievements of the EU so far, it is crucial to its development and to the understanding between the peoples, and there is no reason why it would change in the next years.

In the LAC region, academic cooperation programs exist within the framework of MERCOSUR, the Organization of Ibero-American States, and the Pacific Alliance – though with much less funds and efforts dedicated to it than in their European counterpart. Sadly, international academic mobility in some LAC countries such as Chile does not have a great reputation – although it is a requirement in our globalized world. Academic cooperation programm remain vital, and it is important to have a look at them and see how they can contribute to the understanding between nations, trade, and education overall.

This paper will be divided into three parts: first, we will see how the Erasmus program works within Europe – leaving the cooperation with Third countries aloof. We will continue with the analyzing of the academic cooperation within the framework of the integration processes in the LAC region. Finally, we will take into consideration the assets of an international academic cooperation at regional level.

 

First, let’s break the utopia: Erasmus is not only for exchange students. This is indeed the main part, but teachers and administrative staff can go abroad, and students can also carry out traineeships within its framework. For an HEI to be allowed to take part in the Erasmus program requires little effort: filling in an application file – the so-called “Erasmus Charter for Higher Education” – and bazinga! That is basically it. Once this is done, two HEIs from two different countries fill in an “Erasmus agreement” stipulating various information such as the number of incoming and outgoing students, the level of language required, the area and the level of studies, the length, and the type of mobility. There is no limit whatsoever on the number of agreements that an HEI can sign, and this is an easy document to fill-in.

The amount of the scholarships is set by each HEI depending on what it gets from the EU, which explains why a student at Paris-Sorbonne University will get less than a student at Bordeaux University: there are significantly more scholarships holders at the Sorbonne, and the EU Commission has limited funds, leaving each university deciding on the number of scholarships and the amount it gives (€272/month being the average amongst European students). Also, the amounts vary significantly from one country to another: Spanish scholars are known to obtain more than their French counterparts for instance. The governments of the countries or the HEIs can choose to add up to the amount given by the EU, hence improving the experience of the “chosen ones” – in reality there is not much of a “Matrix” choice, excellence is not really a core condition to get the scholarship since the number of applications is usually lower than the number of available spots.

This was the easy part of Erasmus. There are a lot of tools that you can find on the EU-Commission webpage, one of them being the building of joint Masters Programs – the so-called Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees (EMJMD) – between various partners. The aim is to offer two-year study programmes with at least two mobilities, excellence being in this case a core component when it comes to selecting the candidates. Erasmus Mundus has been created in 2004, and scholarships are also available – obviously less than in the case of the regular Erasmus, but with much higher amounts.

Now, allow me to give away a few figures to understand how big and important Erasmus really is: in 2014, €2 billion were spent on Erasmus, 650.000 people studied, trained or volunteered abroad, and 70.000 organizations were involved. Spain, Germany and France are the most popular destinations within the Erasmus programme, while the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Luxemburg are the least popular. This ranking barely changes when it comes to the most students benefiting from a scholarship – although Luxemburg and Liechtenstein are the two countries that send the most students compared to the national student population. 61% of the beneficiaries are women, and the Bachelor level is the level that most students choose to carry out an Erasmus mobility (67%), followed by the Master level (29%). Social Sciences, Business and Law is the area involving most students (31%), while Humanities and Arts, and Engineering (both equal at 17%) complete the podium. Finally, the average age of the Erasmus student is 23, and the average length of the mobility is one semester. Between its creation in 1987 and the year 2013 (26 years), 3.350 million individuals benefited from the programme – that is the population of Uruguay! In 1987, 3244 students from 11 countries benefited from it, while 270.000 students and 52.000 staff from 33 countries carried out a mobility in 2012. This number has hence been multiplied by 100 over 25 years (!!!). 4.600 HEIs participated in Erasmus as members in 2013. By 2020, the goal of the EU is that 20% of all graduates from the EHEA have spent a period of time abroad. Impressive, right? Yes, Erasmus is quite good when it comes to marketing!

 

Now, let’s jump to Latin America and the Caribbean. There are various levels of academic cooperation within the MERCOSUR. Let us not talk about the regional accreditation mechanism (the so-called ARCUSUR) since that is not our focal point – yet do know that there is a cooperation to make sure that there are quality standards at MERCOSUR level and that only MERCOSUR-accredited university courses can partake in the cooperation program that we will study next. MARCA in Spanish (Regional Academic Mobility for Accredited Courses) encompasses Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay and was created in 2006. This is the only academic cooperation within MERCOSUR, and students’ mobility is the main component. Every two years, one of the countries takes charge of the program (Brazil is currently the institutional coordinator). Universities of at least two different countries have to build a project, valid for two years, and exchange students can stay at the partner university for 1 or 2 semesters – may they study, carry out traineeships or researches. The number of financed mobilities per project depends on each country separately (5 for Argentina, 10 for Brazil, etc.). The amounts also depend on the country, but the home country usually covers the flight ticket and the insurance costs, while the host country finances the monthly allowances. The amounts are set by the countries themselves and differ from one country to another. An Argentinian student going to Brazil will hence get a monthly allowance of US$1.233/month, plus US$2.003 for the costs occurred by the installation, in addition to the insurance and the flight ticket: that is for a period of time of six months US$9.401. A Brazilian student in Argentina will get US$1.770/month, plus US$580 for the installation costs, and the insurance and the flight tickets (US$11.200). Generally speaking, the cost of life in Argentina is more expensive than in Brazil, but the amount that a student gets is still very generous. In that respect, MARCA looks a lot like Erasmus Mundus. Regarding the call 2015-2016, 15 projects have been selected, implying 35 Argentinian university courses, 16 in Bolivia, 38 from Brazil, 5 Chilean, 6 from Uruguay, and 10 in Paraguay. Note that all six Uruguayans courses are taught in the same university (the University of the Republic).

The Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI) is not a proper regional integration system, but it is an intergovernmental organization relevant for the education field. It was created in 1949 (before the EU that is), but became what it is nowadays in 1985. Within its framework, the Exchange and Academic Mobility Program (PIMA in Spanish), coordinated by Spain, is of interest since it grants scholarships since 2000. The program contributes to the Ibero-American Knowledge Area (EIC in Spanish). Most Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in Latin America took part in it in 2015, plus Spain (this makes up for 19 countries, and a total of 67 universities), but any university belonging to a Spanish or Portuguese speaking country can participate in it providing that it is part of the OEI. In total, 273 scholarships were granted in that same year (165 between Spain and Latin America, and 108 between Latin American HEIs), the home university being in charge of selecting the students. It appears very similar to MARCA: a minimum of three universities from three different countries have to gather together and build a project in one single field of knowledge; they are hence organized by thematic reds and exchange students/interns can only carry-out a one-semester mobility at most within a host university that is a member of the same thematic red as their home university. There is unfortunately no information available regarding the amount granted to the students since it depends on every project, but a clue is that the scholarships are not meant to cover all costs of the mobility, they are only a supplement intended to cover the additional costs related to moving abroad, so it cannot be as much as MARCA. So, if you are a student and have to choose between MARCA and PIMA, I suggest you try MARCA!

Finally, the Pacific Alliance (which is not a regional integration system either) has an academic cooperation program, called Student and academic platform, consisting in four yearly calls country by country – and not one call for all countries altogether. Each of the four countries involved decides which amount students get, and it hence depends on the countries where your home and host universities are situated – but we are talking about high amounts anyways. There is a reciprocity principle when it comes to the students flows since approximately 100 scholarships are available in every country. One of the peculiarities of this program is that universities have nothing to do with the selection of the students: one governmental agency in every country is responsible for the selection (a student has to apply to his/her home country’s national agency, and the selection is made by the agency of the country of the host university the student is applying to). Unlike MARCA  and PIMA, not only universities can take part in the program, but institutes and other types of HEIs as well depending on what each country decides – which is a good point. In addition, various fields of studies have been deemed as priorities: business, finances, international trade, public administration, political sciences, hospitality, economics, international relations, environment and climate change, innovation, sciences and technology, and engineering. Finally, it is worth adding that various types of mobilities can be taken into consideration: student mobility (one semester for undergraduates) and academic mobility (from three weeks up to one year for PhD students, researchers and teachers). For more information and critics about this program – yes, I like criticizing – please see the post La cooperación universitaria en el marco de la Alianza del Pacífico from April, 10th 2016.

These are the only three international cooperation systems that promote international mobility in the LAC region, but only one of them is actually part of a sub-regional integration system – with the UNASUR on its way thanks to the creation in 2012 of the South American Council for Education (CSE). The SICA, the ALBA, the ACS, the CAN, and all other regional integration attempts do not seem to consider academic cooperation and students’ mobility a priority.

 

Erasmus: changing lives, opening minds” is the official slogan of the Erasmus programme and it is meant to represent the values that it stands for. Well, it could not be more right. I personally benefited twice from the program, and from three other national programs, all of which allowed me to study, work and carry-out traineeships abroad. I know I was lucky that I was born on that side of the Atlantic when it comes to this kind of opportunities, but it was not easy to always start fresh and go somewhere new. I partied a lot, but I also worked my as off. I can now speak fluently German, English and Spanish, in addition to my mother tongue French, and know my way in Portuguese. These make up for five languages. I now work in the international cooperation field, and programs like Erasmus have highly contributed – and still contribute – to this. It also gave me some values that are essential in our globalized world: independence, flexibility, autonomy, and most importantly great interpersonal skills. I am a convinced Europhile, I believe that building bridges between cultures and nations through regional integration is possible and needs to be worked on in a clever manner: the new generation should be trusted because its perception of other countries is actually more up-to-date than old bureaucratic officials that have never lived abroad – or at least not in the last 20 years. Also, this type of program can contribute to the improvement of education: by welcoming foreign students, universities gain experience and can adapt and improve their courses offer.

The internationalization of education is a task that concerns all LAC countries – or so they say out loud. They seem to be coming up with sub-regional integration systems every day – barely exaggerating it. We are not even talking about political or economic integration here, but a mere intergovernmental cooperation promoting students exchanges at continental level – just like the programs implemented in the LAC region that we have studied, but with the features of Erasmus. Students would hence benefit from classes taught in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, German in some cases, and could even learn indigenous languages. What is not to like there? That does not seem to be as hard as agreeing on everything as it is the case for UNASUR: countries could simply decide which HEIs can participate, give funds to a General Secretariat that would divide it between all countries’ participating HEIs, and HEIs would simply have to sign a bilateral agreement. Of course, it is harder than that, but with a bit of an effort and money, it is doable. That would actually allow students to improve their skills by learning things they could not learn in their own country, trigger an interest within the young generation in creating a regional integration system that could actually work, and hence unite peoples. How scary, right?

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