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In the same week that the European Union accepted the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, some voices across Europe were questioning what the EU really has achieved. Faced with the harsh economic reality of debt and stubbornly high-levels of unemployment, many people are struggling with the difficulties of everyday life.
In this context, the progress of the last 60 years can seem at best, remote, and at worst, irrelevant. However, at the least, this award provides us with an opportunity to reflect and perhaps gain some perspective on the magnitude of the achievements of European integration, one of which is the Erasmus programme.
When Erasmus began 25 years ago, Europe was still a continent divided. Its peoples, families and communities were separated and the continent effectively partitioned. For young people of university age today, these grim realities of the past may seem strange if not unimaginable.
Yet it is also because of programmes like Erasmus that this past has receded almost into oblivion. Erasmus laid the foundations for face-to-face contact between Europeans to foster understanding, cooperation and peaceful development in a post-1989 Europe. Since its launch in 1987, almost 3 million students have participated in the programme, and since 1997, over 300,000 higher education teachers and other staff have also taken part in the scheme. For many, international contacts and cross-border friendships have become the new 'norm'.
This is seen across Europe as outstanding achievement of the programme. It has undoubtedly contributed to the long period of peace and stability we have been enjoying in the European Union. With the help of the Erasmus programme, the EU has sought to unite Europeans around the idea that international cooperation through democratic channels is a means of guaranteeing peace.
Today, the economic crisis is hitting hard and young people, in particular, are suffering from high levels of unemployment. We have seen how economic hardship can put pressure on the very foundations of our societies' social cohesion. But I am convinced that education plays a crucial role in both passing on these core values to young Europeans and to help combat youth unemployment.
There is no better way to enhance young people's skills and employability than by studying, training or working abroad. Equally, by uniting young Europeans in common values across national borders, we can foster understanding and solidarity. No other EU programme has been as effective as Erasmus in achieving both of these goals.
The Erasmus programme has also proven an important catalyst in the reform of higher education systems. Participating universities have opened up to new influences and new ways of thinking. Through funding transnational projects, Erasmus has enabled European higher education institutions to improve teaching and strengthen their institutional leadership and management.
The simple process of sending and taking in foreign students within a programme framework has helped to further the reflection on the recognition of foreign diplomas as well as increasing cooperation between businesses and universities. In short, the Erasmus programme has been good for the quality of higher education.
Equally, the returns on investment in education are significant. Education has numerous positive knock-on effects in various different areas of society. In turbulent economic times such as these, education provides an opportunity to acquire the skills and qualifications relevant to, and sought after by, today's employers.
This is why now, more than ever, we need to invest in and not cut education and training budgets. We need modern education and training systems which cater for a young generation which is creative, innovative and prepared for a fast-moving and increasingly competitive world.
It is for this reason that the European Commission has proposed a significant increase in the budget for education and training for the period 2014-2020 and has put forward plans for a new education, training and youth programme – 'Erasmus for All' – which would open up opportunities for 5 million people to study and train in another country.
Amongst them would be nearly 3 million students in higher education and vocational training. The aim is not only to reach more people but also to have a greater impact. By bringing together the current EU and international schemes for education, training, youth and sport – in effect, replacing seven programmes with one - it will increase efficiency, make it easier to apply for grants and reduce red tape. Students will be better prepared for their time abroad with more support for language learning before and during their exchange. More help will be provided to disadvantaged groups to widen access to the programme. Furthermore, full-time Masters' students could also benefit from a new loan guarantee scheme, helping them to study for a full degree abroad. Finally, the programme would support European countries in modernising their education systems and making their universities more international.
There is no quick-fix to the economic crisis in the same way there is no guaranteed recipe for enduring peace. However, for 25 years the Erasmus programme has contributed to building a Europe of peace and democracy by supporting students and teachers in their learning experiences and building on their mutual understanding.
With 'Erasmus for All' the European Union will continue to support teachers and young people and help provide them with the skills and creativity Europe needs to secure a prosperous and sustainable future for all of us. It is only through concerted and sustained efforts that we can make sure that the divided Europe of the past remains where it should be: in the past, and never to return.
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