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Erasmus Mundus gets glowing plaudits from international students. Yet British graduates still seem reluctant to leave home

The Erasmus scheme is more popular than ever. In the last academic year, more than 200,000 European undergraduates had the chance to spend part of their studies in a different European country from their own. More than 10,000 of these students were British. But have you ever heard of Erasmus Mundus?

Six years ago, the European Commission launched a new scheme that opened up Erasmus to postgraduate students from around the world. Aimed primarily at attracting the brightest and the best to Europe, Erasmus

Mundus gave non-European students the chance to study for a Masters or PhD on the continent. “We can share knowledge and learn from each other,” says Dennis Abbott, European Commission spokesman for education. “Someone from China who is a brilliant researcher will bring their experience and knowledge to a European university, as well as taking back what they have learnt to China. Co-operation is the main objective.”

The initiative is fairly small so far, with 115 Masters and 13 doctoral programmes on offer. These integrated Masters are jointly run by at least three higher education institutions from different European countries, and students spend one-third of their course at another of the universities in the consortium. Most of the Masters programmes last two years, but some are one-year.

UK higher education institutions are actively involved. Between 2004 and 2008, they were engaged in 53 Erasmus Mundus projects, and 10 of these universities were the coordinating institutions. Not content with teaming up with one another, these European consortia are increasingly forming partnerships with universities outside Europe, lending an increasingly cosmopolitan flavour to their offerings. For example, if you want to save the world and take the International Humanitarian Action Masters, you have a choice of studying at seven core European universities and eight international universities, from Columbia in New York to the Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth in Lebanon. It would be almost impossible to find such a range of choice on any other Masters anywhere else internationally.

The subject choice is almost exotic. Students can opt for an MSc in international vintage, vine, wine and terroir management and study in Spain, France, Hungary, Italy or Portugal. Or they can take a Masters in advanced robotics with the chance to study in France, Poland and Italy, and the option of spending a semester in Thailand, Japan or China.

Students can even study the science of outer space with the SpaceMaster MSc at a choice of six European institutions, as well as Japan’s University of Tokyo and Utah State University, in the US. The variety is mind-boggling.

Tuition fees for European students are €2,000-8,000, which is cheaper than some British Masters – and almost all the courses are taught in English. Until 2009, the courses were aimed at non-European students – Americans, Canadians and anyone from developing countries, who were given scholarships to entice them to the continent.

Only 25 British students have taken part in Erasmus Mundus in the past five years compared to 123 from France and 93 from Spain. But this is set to change. Now scholarships are being made available to European students, including the British. One lucky British student was awarded funding for the last academic year. The number of Europeans on scholarships remains small – 780 compared to 1,346 for international students – but at least the trend is going in the right direction.

Scholarships are generous, giving students up to €23,000 for fees, a monthly grant for board and lodging and money for travel if the student studies in a country outside Europe.

The big question is whether more British students will now start to look outside these shores for their postgraduate studies, especially given that Erasmus Mundus is becoming highly regarded. Paul Dowling, of the Europe unit at Universities UK, says that the Erasmus Mundus courses are very competitive. “It has become quite prestigious, a mark of quality,” he says.

It seems that everyone benefits. European institutions form links with other universities across Europe and the world. At the same time, they attract top-notch students. The young people gain a distinguished postgraduate diploma as well as international experience.

John Welliaveetil from India is an example of the kind of student that Erasmus Mundus is attracting. He is studying a Masters in algebra, geometry and number theory, which can be taken at eight universities on four continents. Welliaveetil has already spent a year at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and is now at Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France. He turned down places at Cambridge and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore, in favour of Erasmus Mundus.

“The universities involved are very good,” he says. “There are three Fields Medallists in the faculty as well as some very big names in geometry and number theory. It made perfect sense. I welcomed the chance to study a Masters at two different universities. They approach things differently and have different strengths. Changing universities broadens one’s perspective.”

Welliaveetil has been impressed with the quality of the teaching. “The courses I have attended over the past two years have been taught by excellent researchers, and their approach to several aspects of the subject cannot be found in textbooks,” he says.

Furthermore, he gets the chance to write his thesis under a professor of his choice, which isn’t something you can do everywhere. In addition to a world-class education, Welliaveetil thinks he is gaining valuable experience living abroad. “You meet people from all over the world who are very talented and interested in what they are doing,” he says.

It is easy to see why the scheme has been so successful at attracting non-Europeans. Welliaveetil receives a scholarship worth up to €48,000 (£40,150) over two years.

The hope is that with Erasmus Mundus now giving support to European students, it will be able to draw British students out of their British bubble. Professor Malcolm McCrae, chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education, says that the British are naturally reticent about studying abroad. This is partly because of the language barriers. But one of the key problems is that many of the Erasmus Mundus Masters are two years, unlike the one-year Masters in the UK, and this could be a deterrent, according to McCrae.

However, others argue that the British one-year Masters shortchanges students because it can involve relatively little teaching or one-on-one time with professors. David Geier, a German Masters student, has thoroughly enjoyed the first year of his Masters in computer sciences at Paris-Sud 11 in France (he will be doing the second year at the Technical University of Berlin) and has relished learning another language.

“I have learnt French, which I think will open up new job opportunities,” he says. All Erasmus Mundus students praise the small class sizes and the benefits of being able to talk to professors.

Jonina Campbell, of Scottish and American descent, did the European Health Masters with Erasmus Mundus. She spent the first year at the University of Sheffield, and the second year in Krakow, Poland. “It totally changed my life in wonderful ways,” she says. “Not only did I get the chance to study and live abroad with a wonderful group of people, but while in Poland I also met my fiancé. The two-year experience was definitely a fantastic experience, professionally and personally.”

It is clear that the benefits of studying for an Erasmus Mundus Masters or PhD outweigh the disadvantages. Let’s hope British students see that.

Annie Padwick from Newcastle did a Masters in Euroculture through Erasmus Mundus. The course lasted 16 months, taking her to Jagiellonian University |in Poland, the University of Groningen in The Netherlands and The University of Pune, India.

“I wanted to do a Masters in European Studies, but in the UK I would have paid £1,000 to £2,000 more than in other European countries. Having spent a year abroad in Leipzig as part of my BA in German, the idea of moving to another country wasn’t too daunting. In fact, the prospect of being able to study in two different countries was the main draw in taking an Erasmus Mundus course. Euroculture also offered some more practical courses, as well as a work experience placement, and this was a significant factor in my choosing it.

The best bit was the travel. There was never a dull moment. I was constantly meeting new people and visiting new places. Because I studied in international and intercultural groups, there were many different points of view with great opportunities for discussion and comparison, and the chance to learn a lot from other students about their own countries.

All the courses were taught in English. A highlight was studying at India’s University of Pune for three months, where I conducted research for my MA thesis. I received a generous grant from Erasmus Mundus to do this.

Adapting to a new country, language and university system three times in one and a half years has increased my self-confidence. I feel like I could live pretty much anywhere in the|world now.

Working across universities allows you to experience different university systems, and puts you in contact with new research areas and fields of expertise.

I now have connections across the world. Erasmus Mundus provided me |with a double degree and accreditation from two European universities. That looks great on your CV.”

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