Every year, hundreds of thousands of students travel internationally as part of the European Union’s Erasmus+ Programme.
It's a chance for them to learn new skills, expand their horizons and mingle with other students in countries across Europe and beyond.
But over 75 per cent of people who took part in this exchange programme in 2018/19 travelled by plane. Now, one student-led initiative is encouraging and empowering them to opt for more sustainable travel options.
Erasmus by Train advocates for students to use more environmentally friendly methods of transport to reach their exchange destinations - without having to think about the cost. The idea started in 2019 with a group of German university students travelling to a summer academy in the UK. Now it has more than 25 members in countries across Europe.
The group says that the vast number of students who choose air travel, rather than rail or other alternatives, are contributing significantly to the European Union’s already substantial CO2 emissions.
With 2021 being the European Year of Rail, it is calling for free Interrail passes, round trip train tickets or reservations for all Erasmus+ students. They believe that it will make the experience more accessible as well as contributing to a greener Europe.
What is the Erasmus+ Programme?
The European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students or Erasmus is an EU exchange programme that was established in 1987. Over 4,000 university institutions from 31 countries are part of the scheme.
Since its creation, more than three million students within the European community have participated, staying in their exchange country for anywhere from three months to a year. The 2021 to 2027 programme places a strong focus on social inclusion, promoting young people’s participation in democratic life and the green and digital transitions.
When the new programme was published, media, politicians and public bodies applauded it for its focus on sustainability but Erasmus by Train isn’t so sure.
A spokesperson for the group says the proposed strategies to increase the programme’s green credentials “remain vague in their formulation, strenuous in their implementation and preliminary in their achievements”.
Is there any incentive for Erasmus+ students to travel sustainably?
Until recently, there was no incentive for students on the programme to travel sustainably but the European Parliament is now calling for Erasmus+ students to be encouraged to choose the least polluting form of transport. As part of the 2021-2027 Programme Guide, there is now some help for students looking to travel by train or other less polluting options.
As far as Erasmus by Train knows, the new system pays a single contribution as a top-up amount to students choosing a sustainable method of transport. Currently, this is €50 along with up to four days of additional individual support; the group worries this is not enough to cover the full price difference between a cheap flight.
“From our conversations with the International Offices of the universities, we know that students have to buy their transport tickets first, send proof to the International Office and only then receive the top-up amount,” adds Erasmus by Train. The group adds that as the scheme has just been launched, it is difficult to know how many students are aware of it and how much it is being used.
“However, we fear that the approach proposed by the European Commission will lead to increased bureaucracy, both for the students and for the International Offices, which would significantly decrease students’ motivation to apply for the grant.”
How can more students be encouraged to travel by train?
Erasmus by train says there needs to be a financial incentive for students to choose sustainable transport. They believe that providing Interrail passes for all Erasmus participants to and from the location of their exchange is part of the answer.
They also say it would be good for the EU to make it mandatory for higher education institutes to provide information about sustainability in the documents they provide to students.
The group behind the initiative adds that we need to transform the way we think about rail journeys. Rather than thinking of it as an “annoying sacrifice” we need to start considering this green option as an enriching part of the travel experience.