The fourth wave of Covid has triggered restriction demands across Europe. European leaders from Copenhagen to Prague are under growing pressure to reintroduce tighter Covid-19 measures – across the board or targeting the unvaccinated – amid a surge in new infections across the continent.
Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a very difficult and challenging endeavour worldwide. This situation particularly affected projects funded within the framework of the Erasmus+ programme, as many of them were (and to some extent continue to be) affected by restrictive measures to protect public health. The closure of educational institutions has had an immense impact on Europe’s educational systems. Many Erasmus+ students continue to endeavour to adapt to the host culture due to the isolation requirements and cope with the restrictions.
One of the greatest opportunities to enrich one’s university experience is to benefit from mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ or the Turing programme. While students are offered various mobility programmes, Erasmus+ holds the leading position in terms of popularity among European Universities and has also became a byword for the student exchanges. However, usual university and mobility habits were of course, interrupted by the pandemic.
Students are witnessing different degrees of disruption at the moment and considering the COVID-19 situation, the European Commission intends to give a flexible framework (with enough flexibility for both national agencies and higher education institutions) and not come up with descriptive rules in order to allow for solutions to tackle the individual needs of students. What is important is that students receive the necessary support to ensure that they do not lose this academic year and obtain the necessary academic credits via virtual learning.
In March 2021, the European Commission issued guidelines to higher education Institutions (HEIs) and national agencies, allowing them to use the “force majeure” clause. This clause addresses any situation involving students on the ground, to, as much as possible, prevent any negative impact on the students themselves.
It allows students to assess the possibility of accepting additional costs justified by the COVID-19 containment measures—costs which should not exceed the total budget granted to the project. These additional costs can mitigate the negative impact of students’ Erasmus+ grants in the event of interruption to their stay abroad. Many students who were abroad at the outbreak of the virus, had costs relating to their stay (rent, electricity, travel expenses) with a lot of uncertainty regarding what would happen with those costs and the grants given. National agencies have been given the biggest flexibility to adapt to the problems encountered in this situation, as some students stayed in their host country, while others went back home.
In addition, the European Commission is encouraging higher education Institutions to provide online courses for both students in host and home countries, and to achieve the outcomes indicated in their learning agreements regardless of the students’ geographical location, for example, through remote studying arrangements with the use of digital tools. This flexibility in particular helps students who have returned to their home countries to finish their courses at their host institution and to obtain the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) through remote studying arrangements. Recent graduates who need to postpone their planned placements abroad, will be allowed to take them up within eighteen months of their graduation, instead of the normal twelve-month timeframe.
During the study period, young people prepare themselves for independent adult life, as well as gain the skills needed for their future professional careers. One of the greatest opportunities to enrich one’s university experience is to benefit from mobility programmes, such as Erasmus+. While students are offered various mobility programmes, Erasmus+ still holds the leading position in terms of popularity among European Universities. However, usual university and mobility habits were interrupted by the pandemic.
Erasmus students’ attitudes are mainly negative towards the restrictions due to various reasons. The restrictions, which promote isolation for the sake of the community’s welfare, foster the possible negative effects on mental health. Based on the data provided by the European Commission, student mobility was impacted the most, in comparison with other university practices. Yet the pandemic did not result in students losing their desire for Erasmus+ adventure. It is therefore interesting to look into the reasons behind the decision to continue the exchange in these challenging pandemic times.
Regarding the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, there is another question in mind - is there enough support for Erasmus+ Students to cope with related issues? The conducted study revealed that 45.5% of the students thought that they had enough support regarding mental health, while 54.5% stated the opposite. However, many questions arose from the limitations for example, the social and economic status of the exchange students, as well as the facilities that both home and host universities offered. To manage the possible destructive effects of the pandemic, students needed to receive sufficient support from their friends, families, host, and sending institutions. A study held in German Universities in 2016 showed that time latitude and social support by students were proven to be significant predictors for anxiety, contributing to 16% of the total variance. The International Journal of Nursing Mental Health suggested that setting up regular phone calls or video conferences with family, friends, and colleagues could bridge the gaps brought on by social distancing. Therefore, as individuals, we need to be aware of the importance of social support and professional help to maintain well-being during these difficult times.
The last focus of the study was the relationship between the disobedience of the restrictions with its possible motives, such as mental health and the image of the Erasmus+ programme. The findings illustrated that 63.5% of the survey takers participated in illegal social activities regarding COVID-19 restrictions, while the rest stated that they did not.
Summing up, COVID-19 interfered with everyone's plans. Whether we consider only education or personal lives one thing is certain, going on an exchange nowadays is a challenge that adds to the Learning Agreement. Students are quite lucky to be able to go on the exchange, even though the exchanges of today are not the same as they would've hoped for. Though different countries deal with the pandemic in different ways, some restrictions remain, and this is something we have to face, while coping with a new way of life.
Read also our blog "How to Prepare for an Erasmus+/Turing Scheme Trip During a Pandemic".