As international travel continues to be discouraged, the numbers are unlikely to improve in 2021, the webinar heard.
The model used to select participants, who didn’t sit a Leaving Cert exam this year, is also likely remain in place for 2021, the webinar heard.
Minister of State for Skills and Further Education Niall Collins pledged to deepen and broaden educational engagement with the EU for Irish students.
The minister was speaking at Thursday's webinar (11 December) on the role of the EU in education and exchange, which was organised by the European Parliament Liaison Office in Ireland (EPLO), the European Commission Representation in Ireland and The Wheel.
The webinar heard that the Erasmus+ budget is growing but not adequate to support everybody that wants to participate.
Barriers to inclusion are being addressed, and every public and private higher education institute in Ireland will be included in the programme.
The goal of a greater level of equity in participation means normal monthly grants will be topped up for one in every five students.
Gerry O’Sullivan, head of international education at the Higher Education Authority, oversees the Erasmus+ programme and said there are huge challenges and opportunities for education in the programme, though the EU doesn’t have a direct responsibility for education.
There are significant changes on the way for Erasmus+, which are paused because of the current impasse in UK-EU negotiations, he said.
Monthly support runs to €300-€400 with an additional €180 for SUSI student grant recipients.
“The financial barrier is being addressed. And a student will now get an extra €500 towards travel to one of the EU destination colleges,” he said.
Five- to 30-day stays will be possible under the planned changes, and this is expected to have a significant input on Irish participation.
The UK is the single largest destination for students from Ireland going on company placements, O’Sullivan explained.
“If the UK is out of the EU, we will have to find other places for those students to go to,” he said.
Educational exchange will be even more important as part of Ireland’s global engagement strategy, as the UK departs the EU, O’Sullivan added.
“That shared space [with the UK] that we have enjoyed over our history is changing in a very significant way,” O’Sullivan said.
“We need to embed a sense of global inter-relationship between our universities and institutions of higher educations, with others externally, to enhance the quality of the education experience.
“Higher education has to be challenging.
“Going to Europe is a challenge in itself, but not a major challenge anymore, because young people travel globally,” he said.
In another European country, Irish students will be among the best educated, the best accommodated, the freest systems with the best healthcare and education systems in the world, O’Sullivan said.
To be part of that is worth experiencing, to build skills, competencies and language abilities, and to get a sense of global fitness as an Irish citizen, he continued.
“Erasmus+ is a wonderful opportunity to join with fellow Europeans at an important stage in your education and personal developments, and it brings added skills to a CV when looking for a job,” he said.
A total of 60,000 Irish students have travelled abroad on Erasmus+ since its foundation in 1987, while 100,000 students have travelled here to learn at Irish institutions.
No 'undocumented' Irish in Europe
Gerry O’Sullivan said that there is no such thing as an undocumented Irish person in Europe.
But our status as an island presents a barrier to participation in education in Europe, as well as our poor command of other languages, he said.
“We are part of a single labour market in Europe,” he said.
He said Europe-wide research and collaboration is key to driving knowledge-based economies.
The European Universities Alliance is at an early stage, he said, and seamless structural relationships will be important in Europe’s future.
Erasmus+ began in 1987 under the tenure of then EC Commissioner Peter Sutherland, though he did not originate the idea, and Ireland was one of the first countries to take part, O'Sullivan said.
There were considerable initial objections to the Erasmus+ ideal but its supporters prevailed, O’Sullivan explained.
The Treaty of Rome was written without any reference to education, which would be unimaginable today, since education is at the core of every developed economy, Gerry O’Sullivan said.
Giorgio Guazzugli Marini, deputy head of the Erasmus+ unit in the DG for education and culture, said the programme is receiving increased investment because it means a lot to Europeans.
The next generation of the multi-financial framework will build on the opportunities which already exist, such as mobility, co-operation and network-building.
“We plan to have almost €26.5 billion for the next seven years for Erasmus+,” he said.
“This is a very important increase, almost doubling the budget, and meaning more opportunities for Europeans to go abroad and learn,’ he said.
The programme will also become more accessible, opening up to pupils in secondary and even primary school.
“This will break down barriers and give a taste of Europe to pupils at a younger age,” Marini said.
Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune told the webinar that the Erasmus+ programme has expanded from 11 to 32 countries, and provides opportunities for teachers, staff, trainees and volunteers, as well as students.
Ireland not sufficiently engaged
However, Ireland does not engage sufficiently with EU educational opportunities because of geographical isolation, she said.
“We need as a nation to engage more in Europe and to understand different cultures and backgrounds,” she said.
Clune urged Irish student to engage more with the EU Erasmus programme.
Clune said the European parliament had objected strongly to cutting funding for the Erasmus+ programme, despite COVID difficulties, because its value in creating good Europeans is widely understood.
“It’s really important in creating European identity,” Clune said.
“It gives a means of living working and studying in another country, with a bit of financial support and the support of an educational institution.”
Erasmus+ also improves language and employment opportunities, Clune said, and she encouraged all students to take advantage of the programme.
One million babies are estimated by the European Commission to have been born to couples who met while on Erasmus+, the webinar heard.