The Bureaucracy of Erasmus
Contrary to what many people might think - and often truly do - the Erasmus program is not simply about sending a few students off to other countries to party. The Erasmus program sends students to foreign institutions to study for a semester (or a year); but it isn't always as easy as it seems.
The Erasmus Program
There is one thing common to all Erasmus students: they must complete the same amount of credits they would normally be doing in their university.
Usually, per year, in a Portuguese university, we have to complete 60 ECTS (credits) - 30 each semester. The same thing happens if we go on Erasmus. No coordinator or professor will just hand you 30 ECTS and a trip to another country on a silver platter.
Each faculty has agreements with the other faculties of the other countries. This means that they should be able to establish Erasmus exchanges between one another , because in some way there is a similarity in the study programs, which will allow the student to obtain those 30 ECTS in the same course/field of study that they are attending in their own country.
The problem is, as you can imagine, not all courses are the same in every country. It is not as simple as to apply for an Erasmus, get accepted and go. There is a whole process - which by the way is a bore - to make the curricular units in one place equivalent to the other's. This is called a Learning Agreement.
A Learning Agreement is an official document where you will have all of your equivalences from one faculty to the other in writing, which has to be approved by the Erasmus coordinators of both places. They have to guarantee that you are doing the same amount of credits (which does not always mean you are taking the same amount of classes) in a foreign faculty which should have an agreement with yours, and that is why it has to be signed and verified by a professor who is well familiarized with your study plan.
In some places there is more support from the professors, in others not so much. You should insist on having it, though, otherwise , and especially in the beginning, it will all sound like rocket science.
I'm not sure how it works elsewhere - especially because I believe it is different in lots of places - but in my faculty we have to make sure the credits are equivalent (30 ECTS in Portugal = 30 ECTS in any other country) as well as the scientific fields . I'll explain.
In my specific course ( and in all the other courses in my faculty) we have a quite complete study plan which includes curricular units from different scientific fields. I study Public Relations and Business Communication and I have curricular units in my field, of course, in Advertising and Marketing, in the field of Social Sciences, in the field of Communication Sciences, in the Audiovisual field, etc. My study plan contemplates, throughout 3 years of the bachelor's, all of these fields, with different stresses, of course.
My main area of studies is Public Relations and therefore, obviously, I will have a bigger amount of total credits in PR per semester than in any other of the fields I mentioned above.
This means that, if I have an average of 15 credits in PR, 5 in Marketing and 10 in Communication Sciences in a given semester, I will have to do exactly 15 ECTS in PR, 5 in MKT and 10 in CS in a faculty in another country.
My course in particular is pretty specific , that is, it is geared towards a field of study which isn't well known by the majority of people. That unfortunately means that often courses in other places (even in my own country) aren't just of PR but also of Marketing, Advertising, Journalism. All mixed together.
This means that, when trying to create the equivalences, there was already some struggle in conjugating the credits in a correct manner in the correct fields. Very often you will be able to take classes from other years (include lower to yours).
When it all comes crashing down
Well, I went on Erasmus with a ready and compatible Learning Agreement with all that I needed to be able to get the equivalences in Portugal. After enrolling in the faculty here, I had access to my schedule and things started to get complicated.
As I mentioned above, you might have to take classes from a different year of study from yours. I, for once, had it contemplated in my Learning Agreement that I was going to take classes of all of the 4 years of study here (yes, the course here runs for 4 years and not the 3 years we have in Portugal.)
Additionally, there was another aggravation: the course here is divided in trimesters , while in Portugal almost every faculty - if not all of them -work in semesters. And that would not be problematic if the credits were not also divided in a different way: 20 per trimester. That means that instead of all of the classes being worth 5 ECTS as most are in Portugal, they were worth 4 ECTS each.
And now you're thinking: but could you not be there for 2 trimesters? Well, I could, if the second trimester here didn't finish well after I start my 2nd semester in Portugal.
Long story short: 3 months to obtain 30 ECTS in a place where they only teach 20 ECTS per trimester.
The problem came when I looked at the schedule . I have classes from such different years, of course some were going to coincide. My Learning Agreement just came crashing down.
That is no problem because from your arrival date you have about a month to alter whatever you need in your Learning Agreement . But yet another problem comes up: the enrolment period is gone and now there are no free slots for practically any class.
I had another look at the credits, made them equivalent to my scientific field and then try to conjugate both of those criteria with criteria number 3 - schedules . Thankfully and through no easy feat I thought I had assembled a schedule which contemplated all I needed. I tried to enrol myself in the classes with the argument that I really needed to get a place in those specific classes. I got a place in all but one.
And that is when another problem strikes: the practical courses. In addition to the theoretical classes, I have practical courses with shifts . The shifts are taught in different schedules and I, with extra classes and little leeway, really had to get into those classes, but not exactly in the shifts I was in. I'm still trying to figure that part out...
Long story short: 8 classes later and I am missing 1 ECTS in one of the scientific fields... And the worst part is I have to go to the other classes to be able to be evaluated and every other class coincides with another one I already have.
As if all of this mess wasn't enough, at some point I was so desperate that I ended up having to choose classes regardless of the language in which they are taught, which means I will have to take lots of classes in Catalan. As I've explained, Catalan is not an easy language.
On a situation such as this, it is difficult to think positively. In a country which isn't yours, in constant contact with the mobility department, that only says there's nothing they can do, the Erasmus Coordinator in Portugal waiting to know if I can take (even more!) classes to close the credits of the equivalences' process, and I'm over here desperate because I just wanted to go on Erasmus and make the most out of it to get to know a new city, a new culture and different ways of studying my field .
What can you do in a situation like this? Well, you speak to everyone and you use the best and biggest arguments that you have. I've basically run out of options. I've even been willing to take exams in Portugal in classes I've never had - because I'm here - so I can get the credits to finish this semester and who knows this year, which is supposed to be my last in the Bachelor's.
There are those who go back to their countries and forget about Erasmus, but I cannot see that as an option. There's too much at stake. I'm renting a house, transport ticket bought, flights booked... A lot of investment put it and now the "main part" of Erasmus is being problematic. What am I supposed to do to all that? I can't just say "I'm going back to Portugal".
How it should be
If the faculties already have an agreement between one another, it is because they know their study plans coincide in some way . If that happens, the welcoming faculties should also be ready to welcome Erasmus students . It is not enough to say yes and then solve the issues. You have to anticipate it.
The way I see it there is a strategy that could work. If you know you have an agreement with a given faculty, then there should be communication between the coordinators, to understand which classes are equivalent and create a schedule exclusively for the Erasmus students who might want to take them. This way, any student enrolled in a given institution would already have a Learning Agreement just like any student of the same course in the same institution and at the same time they would have a pre-built schedule and would not have to worry about assembling it and figuring out which classes coincide or not.
Strategy number 2: Open slots exclusively for Erasmus students . It is not our fault if the faculty whether the is full of students. We also came from another country thinking we're going to have slots in a class we need and we don't, because they are fulfilled by other students.
Do a lot of research , anything you can before going. Make lists and simulate your classes and schedules. Talk to students who have already gone on Erasmus to the same faculty you're going to, especially if they are from the same course. Realize beforehand if you can actually get the equivalences, before even buying the plane tickets.
There are those who prefer Erasmus for the experience and aren't too fussed about getting the equivalences, but if you are and want to finish your course on time, do a lot of research. Be insistent. Send thousands of e-mails and go to the offices a thousand times if you must. Talk to professors , explain your situation to them and ask them to be understanding. Many might just be.
I hope you do not have to deal with these situations, but if you do, follow my advise. Good luck!
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