by Hannah Arikpo
The Erasmus Mundus Kite Project has gained popularity in academic circles in developed and underdeveloped countries of the world. Institutions of learning, principally universities, send their students on an exchange initiative which has extended beyond the acquisition of academic degrees to the exposing of benefiting students to various cultural affiliations and technological advancement all over the globe.
“The Messenger” took time out to find out about the strategies that have informed the successful journey of the Project. Project Manager Violeta Osouchova and Project Administrator Bohdan Fridrich spoke to us at the Center for Cooperation (CIC), headquarters of the Erasmus Mundus project in Brno.
Project Manager Violeta Osouchova started the interview with our correspondent.
Q : What is Erasmus Mundus all about?
VO : – Erasmus Mundus is a cooperation between Europe and countries outside Europe. The idea was to offer scholarships to students from outside Europe to study in Europe. For exchange students, it is open for all levels, that is, Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees, with some restriction for Africa (which focuses on Master’s and Doctorate). There was also the possibility of having a scholarship for Bachelor’s, full Master’s and Doctorate degrees.
When Erasmus Mundus started as a program in 2007, it was approved for seven years (2007–2014). Another Kite project was submitted and approved in 2013 during the last call for proposals in the ACP (African Caribbean Pacific) region.
So Kite focuses on the ACP region. We have 12 partners from the Caribbean, 2 from the Pacific, 8 partners from Africa, in addition to these 8 partners from Europe. The project is coordinated by Masaryk University.
Q : What is the motive behind instituting the program?
VO: – It was a strategic idea to widen cooperation within the ACP region. We have several contacts, a few with Papua New Guinea and more with many African countries. The idea to submit the project was to improve the position of Masaryk University in the region. Also, I saw our experience that time as a good opportunity because Masaryk University has a lot of excellent opportunities in Erasmus Mundus and then, there were so many countries that had never been involved in Erasmus Mundus. So I had to submit the project proposal with partners that had never been involved in Erasmus Mundus. If you look at the Kite partners, they were all new to the project. So this was a very strong part of the proposal. In Europe, we have some experienced partners – Masaryk University, Lille, Uppsala, Montpellier, Porto, Papua New Guinea among others. European partners comprise the majority of countries with Erasmus Mundus experience. The rest from the Caribbean are very new to the project. We planned it that way because, it was the last call and the start of a new cooperation named Erasmus Mundus + (Plus). I think it was an excellent opportunity. The third motive behind it was that it was my childhood dream to cooperate with Africa. (She laughs.) I love it. I wanted to do something like have some cooperation, mobility with Africa.
Q : The Kite Exchange program, which offers scholarships to various categories of students throughout the world, is a demonstration of the EU plan to advance educational development in Africa… What do you think of this?
VO: – Well, em…., the whole Erasmus Mundus program was not for African Countries alone. It was meant for other countries all over the world, like America, Australia… It was cooperation among European countries and countries outside Europe as well as the promotion of European education. American education is well known all over the world and the idea behind the Erasmus Mundus program was to promote European education as well. You will agree with me that European education is well developed and of high quality, yet it is not popular in the world.
Q : What are the criteria for selecting benefiting countries (universities)?
VO: – Cooperation is key. Well, I already mentioned that one of the criteria for Erasmus Mundus Plus was to provide partners that were not involved before with an opportunity to have the exchange and to see how it works, but of course you will always try to pick the best university in the region. So quality was also important. If you look at the universities involved, they are really good, including those in the African Caribbean Pacific. The idea was to have representatives from each part of Africa. For example, we have Namibia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Gambia and others to provide us with a spread around the continent.
Q : Looking back over the years the exchange program lasted, can you enumerate the benefits?
VO: – Feedback from students and partner universities who have benefited from Erasmus Mundus is very positive. We got similar responses from some students from Asia, for instance, and students from Africa are excited about the program. What impressed me was that at the start of the program, it was tough because students were afraid or shy; not until after the series of promotional talks through workshops did students start applying. We visited literally all the benefiting countries. The second call for applications for mobility was open to everyone, not restricted to partner universities alone. During the second call for applications, the numbers improved. Then with the third call, we received so many that we couldn’t count them all. At every stage the partners always responded positively.
Q : What challenges have you experienced so far ?
VO: – Well, the main challenge is the cultural difference. It is something very difficult to deal with, because students come from different cultures. Some of them are shy, some are open, while others are reserved. Also there are other issues, like some students coming more for fun than to study. (She laughs.) So we have to be careful and check them. Thank You.
BOHDAN FRIDICH, Project Administrator, shed more light on Erasmus Mundus activities at Masaryk University…
Q : Host universities are selected based on criteria. How did you come up with such criteria and what are the modalities for cooperation?
BF: – Well, it depends. In the Kite consortium, we have some partners that we were already in touch with previously, but we also invited new partners. This was mainly because we had to address specific regions where cooperation wasn’t so well established. A further benefit of this was that we were able to set up links, new partners we can build on in the future. I would say that there are two ways of doing this. One is that you rely on already established relationships. Alternatively, due to geographical reasons or because of project requirements you have to address new partners, which is exciting in a way. These methods help the project to expand and grow in context. So the criteria might differ, but I would say that these two are the major ones.
Q : As someone who has worked in the Exchange Program office for some years now, in which areas has the program recorded successes?
BF:- To take the Erasmus Mundus program, it is a platform aimed specifically at establishing new partnerships and links. Masaryk University has been involved in dozens of different Erasmus Mundus projects, allowing us to become familiar with dozens and dozens of institutions. The benefits are recorded at institutional level. Right now as we speak, the Erasmus + (Plus) Project is being developed. These are capacity-building projects that build on the great work set in train by the Erasmus Mundus project, so there is capacity building at institutional level.
At the level of study or research, if a student from the University of Calabar, for instance, is granted mobility, our universities have to work together to ensure that the courses offered by such a student are recognized in principle. The home university has to look for a way to recognize the courses offered by the student during the exchange program. That is why we need to know what you are studying prior to your coming to our university, thereby fostering a closer working relationship and promoting each other. In this way, bilateral cooperation is ensured between Masaryk University and the University of Calabar, because students you meet here might become interested in studying in Africa or Nigeria, or vice versa. So the achievements are enormous. The opportunities might be at institutional level, so building up more projects, or they might open up more responsibilities for students. They might also help to disseminate information on different projects among students in specific regions, including Europe. So this could be the biggest benefit.
Q : You coordinate students from different cultural backgrounds. What strategies do you apply?
BF:- Well, Masaryk University has gained a lot of experience when it comes to international projects of such magnitude, and our students are apparently decent, too. I guess the biggest challenge is the time issue, because we have a lot of international projects to coordinate. Sometimes balancing agenda set by coordinating and administering the various projects at the same time as meeting students’ demands can be a little challenging.
The time issue – finding time to administrate, coordinate, offer services to students and at the same time submit proposals before deadlines as well as responding to e-mails and ensuring that students receive all the information they need at the appropriate time. I think that I and my colleagues at Masaryk University do a pretty good job. Sometimes, when we are approaching deadlines or need to travel for our work, it can be a big challenge from my own perspective to keep everything in line. So I guess the time issue is the biggest challenge.
Q : So that means that the students you coordinate do not present you with any challenges?
BF: – Personally no. When it comes to students, the coordinating and addressing of their issues have become easier for us, because we have been doing this for so long. What we do – arranging tickets, insurance and orientation weeks, sending all the information that the students need – is not new to us; we have been doing it for several years. Technically, it’s pretty easy. In my opinion, the challenging part is when you have so much going on at the same time. It is more fun to deal with students than to deal with expertise.
Q : What is the role of Masaryk University in the Kite project?
BF: – The role of Masaryk University… actually, Violeta initiated the idea and we all liked it. It was one of her dreams to coordinate a project with the ACP (African Caribbean Pacific) region, which is what the Kite program is focused on. What’s the relationship between the two? Well, our role at Masaryk University is to make sure the project works, that the project is successful. So we had to go right back to the drawing board. Then we have to answer pertinent questions like: How many students should we start with? On what kind of mobility do we want to send students from Africa to Europe and Europe to Africa? How many staff members should be involved within the ACP region? Our role in this particular project is to ensure that we send all the students and staff members we plan for. There were over 200 students and staff members involved in the Kite project.
We also make genuine efforts to ensure that beneficiaries of the program from the region understand what exchange mobility is all about. For some of our partners, exchange mobility is quite new; they are familiar with the method of sending students to Europe for full degrees, not for a semester or two, as the Kite project does. Promoting Erasmus Mundus was complicated and we really had to push hard to explain the benefits and mechanisms required to make it happen.