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ERASMUS

Is Erasmus really worth its budget boost?

Erasmus, the world's biggest student exchange, is to expand after 25 years of funding European students to go abroad. But with the EU budget being slashed, does the grant scheme deserve a 50 percent boost to its budget?

Is Erasmus really worth its budget boost?
Many of the 40,000 Spanish Erasmus students abroad this year almost lost their grants after the country's Education Ministry decided to only give scholarships to the neediest students. Photo:dpa

Since its launch in 1988, the EU's flagship student programme has paid grants to over three million Europeans in higher education to study or work elsewhere in the Union.

The 2011-2012 academic year saw 3,328 learning institutions across Europe sending their students abroad on Erasmus placements, among them 33,363 of Germany's best and brightest.

And the "Erasmus+" project approved by the European parliament on Tuesday will invest in the scheme further, merging the student exchange with six other education initiatives to form a "streamlined" programme to give financial support to 4 million people, at a cost of €14.7 billion over seven years.

Around €4.9 billion of that is dedicated to grants for higher education and it represents around a 50 percent increase on Erasmus' budget for the previous seven years.

The new unified system will extend beneficiaries to include "youth leaders, volunteers and young sportsmen", according to the Parliament.

But with austerity-hit member states wrestling the EU's next seven-year budget down by €15 billion to €960 billion – the first cut to a multi-year plan in the Union's history – some are questioning why more taxpayer cash is being spent on non-means-tested grants to university students, while other initiatives are seeing cuts.

Stuart Agnew, an MEP from the anti-EU UK Independence Party, told the European Parliament earlier this month that he saw Erasmus as an unnecessary and "glorified" alternative to national-run programmes, and attacked it as the EU "cynically using" young people to "further its own objectives" in fostering "European values."

Spanish education minister Jose Ignacio Wert also criticized the Erasmus+ plans recently, when he claimed Spain – which sent and received more Erasmus students than any other EU member state in the 2011/2012 academic year – would have to halve their grant payments under the new programme's funding system.

But EU education spokesman Dennis Abbot dismissed the Spanish minister's announcement as "rubbish" and "totally false."

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ELDERLY

Grandfather, 80, becomes Spain’s oldest Erasmus student

He is 80 years old, has suffered a heart attack and quadruple bypass, but on Monday this Spanish grandfather will head off to start a new semester as an Erasmus student in Italy.

Grandfather, 80, becomes Spain’s oldest Erasmus student
Miguel Castillo being interviewed for Antena 3 Noticias.

Miguel Castillo, who is a father of three and grandfather of six, has leapt into the limelight after it emerged that he had won an Erasmus grant to pursue his studies at a university in Verona.

Years after retiring from a successful career as a notary, the octogenarian chose to resume his studies and enrolled in a history degree at Valencia University.

 “It was a typical retirement,” he said in an interview with the Valencian newspaper Las Provincias. “I looked after the grandchildren, went for walks, played golf, but didn’t do much.”

Then at 75-years-old he suffered a heart attack and was given a quadruple heart bypass.

“On the road to recovery I told myself 'I would like to do something beyond the classic napping’,” he explained.

So he enrolled for a degree in modern history and each day attends classes with students who are a quarter of his age.

READ: Want to know the secret to long life? Live in Spain

On Monday, he joins the hundreds of students who won Erasmus study abroad grants to spend a semester at another university in Europe.

“I opted for Verona, in Italy because I was there 42 years ago to see Maria Callas perform,” said the opera buff.

Unlike other students though, he says he will not be staying in a college dorm.

“My wife is coming with me and we will stay in a hotel for a while and then move into an apartment,” he explained. “My wife says that she doesn’t see us at a pijama party.”

Castillo said he gets on very well with other students who have become his friends and wants to inspire other elderly people not to be limited by their age.

“Don’t lock yourself up at home, open up to the world, because we can contribute so much and can also receive a lot from society,” he said.

READ MORE: Six Spanish secrets on how to live to the age of one hundred