Monday, 7 April 2014

What is our education about? - Facts & Figures, part II

The Erasmus program in facts and figures

Part II: What is our education about?


For being more reader-friendly I shortened this article a bit. If you are curious, you can download a longer version here.

In the previous post I presented you some general information about the Erasmus program. What I found most interesting though is the presentation of the program to the public.
Before I referred to different sources describing the aims of the Erasmus program. The critical point here is to understand what "success" means. Success could mean that young people learn to reflect on their prejudices (we've talked about this earlier); skills of communication; skills of humanistic education. Just insert anything you want, really. This time I chose to go more in-depth with one specific document (to also ensure at least some transparency): The Erasmus manifesto which was developed for the 25th anniversary of the program in 2012. It is of interest because 66 Erasmus Ambassadors are looking both back and ahead from the border of 25 years of experience to the future direction of the scheme.

"The manifesto considers the achievements of Erasmus over the past 25 years and looks forward to the evolution of the Programme so that it can be of even greater service to European citizens and society in the coming years" (Introduction, p. 2).

- click to open / download the pdf to compare my interpretation with the document itself! - 


The Portrayal:

In the introduction, Erasmus is portrayed as it is known across Europe: as a period of studying or working abroad, including discovering a culture, learning a language and " a new way of life" (Introduction, p. 2). I am wondering if this is the 'partying and traveling'-part that otherwise is missing completely. It is said that the program contributes to the students' building of knowledge and self-awareness, as to increase the understanding of the European Union and its population all over the continent. This already refers to the European integration that I will readopt later.

The Aims:

The aims of the program as they are displayed in this pamphlet can be itemized to two categories: The improvement of the quality of higher education across Europe and the chance for students to gain and improve their skills.
Participating in the Erasmus program is portrayed as a big chance. It is attractive because "a generation of Europeans can now highlight their Erasmus stay as evidence of a skillset highly prized on the labour market: adaptability, self-reliance, engagement and openness to new experiences" (Introduction, p. 2). This is one of the rare times the text names concrete skills that can be acquired during an Erasmus stay. They remind me of recent sociological concepts that depict the changes of societal claims upon individuals, including a considerable rise in flexibility (check 'Richard Sennett' for some first anchor in this topic).
Other quotes don't name skills but make it very clear that the evaluation of lessons learned is completely aligned with the needs of Europe's employers: "An Erasmus experience offers invaluable skills to employers" (Improving Links between Education and Work, p. 3). Although discovering a culture and a new way of life was mentioned in the introduction part of the flyer, this part of the experience was not reinforced more thoroughly and seems to be regarded a side effect compared to these aims of skill acquirement. Gaining knowledge and self-awareness, other benefits that were praised before, can be considered usable personality enhancements, too.
The aim of a higher quality of (higher) education in Europe has been reached by the program as it has "helped modernise European higher education" (Introduction, p. 2). Educational systems are now more comparable and transparent, especially since the development of the ECTS-system.

The Legitimation:

What really strikes me about the flyer is the legitimation of the program which can be narrowed down to three reasons: European integration, European protectionism and the capitalistic usability which I already depicted.
The European Integration is "the process of industrial, political, legal, economic, social and cultural integration of states wholly or partially in Europe" (wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_integration). Although I won't dig into this topic deeper now, you have probably already guessed there is a high complexity to it, and to the legitimacy of the process as such, too. But it clearly is one argumentative pillar of the program: "Former Erasmus students […] should be invited as role models for the next generations to promote the benefits of European integration" (Breaking down Barriers, p. 3). A common learning space across Europe, also facilitated by means of new technologies, will break down the barriers between national education systems. The barriers between nations themselves might be broken down by understanding and learning "from differences that may otherwise divide us". I wonder, though, if that is an overestimation of the impact and range of Erasmus. Without considerations of the very substance of such differences and, let's be honest, conflicts, I find it difficult to believe that a students exchange program can do justice to them.
To see Europe as 'One' is highly reductionist. And, I mean,  how do you define 'Europe' anyway? What is the model of Europe that is strived for here? 

At the same time, the program also expresses an approach of protectionism to help reach the excellence in education that is called for here: "Europe needs to be a key player in the global race for talent" (Erasmus Goes Global, p. 3). I feel this is a clear eurocentric view of global interrelations. Europe should be the best place to teach and learn - other places are supported and the program should even go global. But at the core that is to make sure that Europe does best in a global race that I personally haven't proclaimed. At this point, there is no consideration of the impact of this Eurocentrism on the gap between the rich and poor, not even to speak of taking responsibility for it. The statement that excellence shall be reached in order to "bring higher education closer to the needs of society" (A Force for Change in Higher Education, p. 2) leaves open which needs are referred to here. I have showed how much emphasis is put on the requests of labor markets and economic structures before.
The fact that throughout the brochure the significance of attracting more students to participate in the program is repeatedly highlighted, does not contradict the aims or legitimation, especially not the call for excellence. It leads me to the question whose interests are considered and which (global) power relations are at stake here. 

My Conclusion:

In general I agree with a lot of goals and suggestions from the manifesto. For example I regard it as highly important to give students a chance to address difficulties, or to shape a tighter connection between the Erasmus experience and local communities. Anyhow, I would wish the official representation would consider the very individual benefits of the program to a greater extent: young adults can intensely learn about and reflect upon their own biographies, their wishes and needs - and in how far they want to take responsibilities for various aspects of living in this world.
I am critical about which goals are aimed for on the long run. Aren't there goals that should matter more than economic reasons? Is there even awareness for the underlying global rivalries? The whole manifesto doesn't consider major challenges of our time: the globalization and mediatization, the shrinkage of the first world, and the gap between rich and poor on a global level, with all its effects on human beings and their lifestyles. There is not a single thought about the climate catastrophe that is caused by these.
I am glad that I am able to use this unique chance of an Erasmus semester to gain skills - and I am even more glad that I am aware that I myself have to define which skills I want to gain, skills that matter to me. Of course it is important to me to educate myself in order to strengthen my position on the labor market; anyhow I am much more concerned about learning how to live a healthy, meaningful life. I try to be independent from any dictations of economic reasoning, as hard as it is. And it is my own responsibility to take care of this.

But on the part of public authorities - what is 'their' education about? 

What do you want your education to be about?




Sources:
Brochure: Erasmus Manifesto: http://ec.europa.eu/education/library/publications/2012/manifesto_en.pdf
Brochure: Changing Lives, Opening minds: http://bookshop.europa.eu/en/changing-lives-opening-minds-pbNC0113436/
Official website for higher education policy: http://ec.europa.eu/education/policy/higher-education/index_en.htm
Wikipedia on European integration: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_integration
Wikipedia on Richard Sennet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sennet
Wikipedia on the ECT-System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Credit_Transfer_and_Accumulation_System

2 comments:

  1. The most recurring word in this article (and in the Erasmus manifesto, I suppose) seems to be "Europe".
    It' weird that in seven months of Erasmus I never heard anyone (students, teachers, coordinators and such) say it.

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    Replies
    1. Nice observation. And, me neither! If there is any "europe"-zation happening, it is very discrete indeed...

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