How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting student exchange programs ?

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Published 2020-07-07 13:00

Student exchange programs are a great option for those who are looking to discover new cultures abroad while benefiting from high-level education. Every year, thousands of students embark on a new adventure abroad thanks to these programs. However, the COVID-19 crisis altered the trend this year, even though border restrictions are being lifted gradually. If you had planned to go on a student exchange program this year, here is what you need to know.

In line with arrangements made by the European Commission in May 2020, exchange programs like Erasmus will mainly be conducted online this year. Erasmus + participants can now benefit from hybrid mobility programs, including physical and virtual activities. In practice, online courses will be provided, but students still have the possibility of moving abroad to complete their program once things get better. These measures aim at limiting the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis for participants during and at supporting project providers.

A glimpse into the Erasmus program

Border and travel restrictions around the world have had a significant impact on programs like Erasmus + and the European Solidarity Corps, which are popular with young students. Figures are self explanatory: early 2020, more than 165,000 young people had already embarked on an exchange program in Europe, while 5,000 chose international volunteering. In contrast, according to the Erasmus student network, 25% of student mobility projects have been cancelled. At the same time, 37% of students who were already abroad encountered housing problems and were not able to return to their home countries.

Latest updates indicate that half of them now have access to distance learning. Several countries, including Ireland and Italy, preferred to postpone the start of their student exchange programs to January 2021 to limit the health and economic risks. Some schools have even removed the physical courses requirement from their programs.

It's worth noting that, to date, more than 9 million people have participated in the Erasmus student exchange program since its creation in 1987. In 2017 alone, nearly 800,000 people benefited from it. This exchange program covers around thirty countries, including the European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, and Turkey. Participants get the opportunity to study free of charge at the university of their choice in one of these countries, and are entitled to a grant for covering their expenses during their stay abroad.

What about those who are already on an exchange program?

The future is uncertain for thousands of young students who have already moved abroad with Erasmus. Should they go back home or stay in their host country? Are they still entitled to their grant in case they choose to return? What if their program has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis? Local authorities and universities participating in the exchange program can answer these questions.

Nevertheless, Erasmus reassures its participants that they can still preserve their grant even if they have returned to their home country as long as they take the online classes and take part in virtual activities set up by their university. Regarding those who are stranded abroad during the COVID-19 crisis, they may be eligible for an additional grant, depending on the availability of Erasmus + funds and arrangements made by the host organisation.

What's happening in participating countries

France has been gradually lifting its borders to countries outside the Schengen area since July 1, 2020. International students will, therefore, be allowed to travel to France for their exchange program, and their visa requests will be prioritised. In 2020, some 155,000 applications, including 73,000 specifically for higher education, were received. Other European countries, such as the Czech Republic, are also preparing to welcome university exchange students for the next school year. Each year, more than 10,000 students and young professionals move to the Czech Republic for their student exchange program.

Meanwhile, Germany has set up a special fund to help international students who are currently in financial difficulty, including student exchange students. They are eligible for a monthly allowance of 500 euros, as well as a loan of up to 650 euros per month provided by the development bank KFW. This interest-free loan is repayable until March 2021. The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Office) is also planning to set up a transition fund to support international students. Also, participants in the Erasmus program who are being compelled to take distance courses are still entitled to their grants.

Regarding the UK, despite the changes brought about by Brexit, many British students were able to virtually cross borders during the lockdown. However, the UK still has to renegotiate the conditions of forthcoming exchange programs with the EU.

Not a novelty?

The Erasmus + Virtual Exchange platform was set up in 2018. To date, more than 20,000 students were able to benefit from flexible online courses. Note that these hybrid mobility programs are already part of the Erasmus+ 2021-2027 strategy.