Group photo at the LEI Annual Meeting 2022 in Münster in front of a university building. Everyone is smiling cheerfully into the camera.
© Markus Thomanek/NA DAAD

Student Engagement and Participation

An introduction
Reading time: 7 min.

Strengthening European identity and promoting the active participation of individuals and civil society in democratic processes are crucial for the future of the European Union. The current Erasmus+ programme (2021−2027) aims to increase people’s interest in and knowledge of the EU with its horizontal priority «Participation in democratic life». Key to this is the (voluntary) engagement and participation of students.

The significance of universities and students for democracy and society

The role universities play in society is widely acknowledged and has often been underlined, for example by the European Commission in its European Higher Education Strategy, which was presented in January 2022. Equally well-documented is the fundamental willingness of students to contribute to and play an active role in democratic processes. Numerous studies, most recently Understanding the Experience & Needs of Exchange Students in Challenging Times, published by the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) in 2022, confirm this. Over half the surveyed students (who came from various European countries) expressed an interest in engaging with other incoming or outgoing students after their period abroad. To do this, they said they would like to have relevant information and support for possible activities, but also official recognition, for example through a reference in their Learning Agreement or at least in their degree certificate.

Which brings us back to the universities. Student engagement concerns not just students, but indeed universities too; they have to take a closer look at the issue and make the student body mor aware of it. This ultimately benefits not just students, who gain valuable (life) experiences through their engagement, but also universities. By supporting student engagement, they can enhance their own profiles.

Universities are key to promote active citizenship, tolerance, equality and diversity, openness and critical thinking for more social cohesion and social trust, and thus protect European democracies. [They] have an active role to play in preparing graduates to be well-informed European citizens.
Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a European strategy for universities, Strasbourg, 18 January 2022, p. 13
Symbolbild: Europa macht Schule: Studierender aus Norwegen erzählt interessierten Schülerinnen und Schülern von seiner Heimat.
© Christian Hüller/NA DAAD

NA DAAD services at a glance

The NA DAAD supports student engagement through two low-threshold programmes: the «Local Erasmus+ Initiatives» (LEI) and «Europa macht Schule» (Europe meets School, EmS), including the programme line «Back to School» (BtS), both of which are funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The NA DAAD plays a special role among the National Agencies in the EU with these initiatives, although networking endeavours in recent years have prompted various programme countries to offer similar initiatives.

The LEIs and EmS offer students a variety of ways to contribute to the European integration process and raise citizens’ awareness of the European Union.  The LEIs are university groups that inform, advise and mobilise students at German universities on the subject of Erasmus+ periods abroad and help international students settle into life in Germany. As part of «Europa macht Schule», international students carry out projects about their home country in school classes in Germany, while «Back to School», a programme line introduced in 2021, offers students at German universities the opportunity to realise a project about their experiences of living abroad at one of their former schools. 

Upswing in student engagement programmes

It is pleasing to see that both programmes are developing exceptionally positively. The LEIs have been funded now for over 30 years. From an initial 19 LEIs in 1991, that number is now 123 in 2023 – with two or three new locations joining every year. Launched in 2006 and funded by the BMBF since 2009, the NA DAAD-coordinated «Europa macht Schule» programme records a similar trend. Thirty-two EmS projects were carried out in the first programme year, recently that number was 113, and in the pre-pandemic years there were no fewer than 250 annually. The new funding period from 2021 has boosted the programme qualitatively and quantitatively, making it possible to launch «Back to School», among other things.

The BMBF’s willingness over the past few decades to renew funding every year as well as to bolster the projects’ positive development with regular budget rises, underlines the importance policymakers also attach to student engagement. Without this support, the projects would certainly not have been possible in this form. 

  • Bootsfahrt auf der Spree beim LEI-Jahrestreffen 2023

    © Melis Cinar/NA DAAD
    Photos of the LEI Annual Meeting 2023 in Berlin

  • Vortrag beim LEI-Jahrestreffen 2023

    © Melis Cinar/NA DAAD
    Photos of the LEI Annual Meeting 2023 in Berlin

  • Speed-Infos beim LEI-Jahrestreffen 2023

    © Melis Cinar/NA DAAD
    Photos of the LEI Annual Meeting 2023 in Berlin

  • Gruppenbild auf dem Campus mit Europaflagge

    © Melis Cinar/NA DAAD
    Photos of the ErasmusDays 2021 in Münster

  • Gruppenbild vor einer Kirche in Münster

    © Melis Cinar/NA DAAD
    Photos of the ErasmusDays 2021 in Münster

  • Zwei Studentinnen schwingen eine Europaflagge

    © LEI Münster/NA DAAD
    Photos of the ErasmusDays 2021 in Münster

Universities and students: it’s easier if you work hand in hand

Practical experience repeatedly shows that the success of a project depends not only on students. Support from their respective university is crucial. Sometimes, it’s just small things that can help students: communication of the respective programmes amongst students, for example through mailing lists or in lectures, or the provision of rooms.

Recruiting new members or enlisting participants for events or projects regularly presents students with challenges, whereas universities can achieve a great deal with relatively little effort, especially in «Europa macht Schule» and its «Back to School» programme line. The LEIs are already more firmly integrated into universities, since funding as an LEI requires cooperation with the respective International Office.

The impact in society: representing Europe

The LEIs are often cited as a prime example of how to establish a welcoming culture at universities, since they take care not just of outgoing but also incoming students – often bringing both groups together. They offer vital support to the International Offices and their goal of encouraging students to spend time abroad. They also step outside the university context on at least two occasions every year, then gaining greater visibility in society. As part of the annual Europe Day in May and the ErasmusDays, which take place across Europe over a three-day period every October, they organise activities that deliberately appeal to the general public and therefore promote political education about the EU.  

On the Europe Days, the LEI branches frequently set up stands at university open days or in city centres. In 2022, for example, the Augsburg team of the Student Welcome and Orientation Project (SWOP), the LEI at Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, used this opportunity to inform passers-by about the possibilities of going abroad and discuss with them subjects relating to Europe. 

The ErasmusDays’ programme is even more diverse. In 2021, the LEI Erasmus Münster e.V., for example, organised a flag parade through the city.Accompanied by music and dance performances, Erasmus students walked through the city centre for two and a half hours, waving national flags and displaying self-designed posters. The LEI’s aim was to raise awareness of Erasmus+ and at the same time advocate open-mindedness and tolerance in Münster.

The impact in society: making Europe everyday reality

Talking about Europe and making it everyday reality – this is the aim of «Europa macht Schule». In concrete school projects, we frequently see participants’ surprise when they realise they are actually not all that different, and that some cultural issues in supposedly foreign countries are more closely intertwined with their own culture than they thought. Even in politics, there are sometimes more similarities than differences. The same issues concern young people all over the world, as the global climate movement and also the war in Ukraine have shown us. This was a topic discussed by a year-10 class at a secondary school in the 2021/22 programme year. A Belgian student had planned to study the First World War in Belgium in her school project, but while she was carrying it out, the situation in Europe changed dramatically. Through the interactive EmS project, the school children learned how to critically assess current events and to use different online media correctly, or to reflect on the validity of this media.

The importance the international students attach to their engagement in the small school project is reflected in the annual evaluations. In the 2021/22 programme year, participating international students rated their experience with the EmS project as very positive, as they did in previous years. Eighty-nine percent of the international students agreed with the statement that participation in the programme had enriched their stay in Germany. Eighty-one percent said the project had allowed them to get to know Germany better, and 76 percent agreed with the statement that their project had made it easier for them to meet German people. Moreover, 86 percent of the students were able to improve their teaching skills. 

The school children, too, are keen to welcome international visitors to their classrooms. In the 2021/22 programme year, 97 percent confirmed they had (really) enjoyed the project; 94 percent said they would like to do another project; and – something that will delight International Offices – 69 percent said they now want to go abroad themselves.

Democratic participation and student engagement – a broad-based concept with multiple opportunities

The Erasmus+ programme in the higher education sector has an impact on several levels. The individual actions complement each other in their impact and as a result help strengthen participation in democratic life. Alongside student and teacher mobilities and cooperation projects carried out as part of Erasmus+, the various student initiatives are an effective way of promoting the transversal programme priority of «democratic participation». The NA DAAD invites all universities to take advantage of the outlined opportunities for student engagement and therefore to foster participation in democratic processes. 

Martina Blindert
EU05 – Student Engagement for Europe
Author: Martina Blindert, NA DAAD