Opinion: as European Commissioner, the late Peter Sutherland played an important part in establishing the Erasmus higher education exchange programme

By Cathal De Paor, Mary Immaculate College

The European Union’s Erasmus+ programme has been in the headlines a lot of late. One of the main reasons was the significant milestone of a 30th birthday celebration. While the original Erasmus began in 1987 as an exchange programme in higher education, the name, with the addition of the plus sign, refers to the broader EU programme in education, training, youth and sport, which funds mobility, partnerships and alliances across Europe and beyond.

The most recent reason is, of course, the sad passing of Peter Sutherland. In 1985, he was appointed European Commissioner for competition policy and, for 1985 only, education, where he played a crucial role in the establishment of the original Erasmus programme. In a sad turn of events, his death comes just weeks after the passing of the Spanish politician, Manuel Marín, who succeeded him as Commissioner of Education, and who progressed the work on Erasmus further.

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From The Business on RTÉ Radio One, a report by Liam Geraghty on the 30 year history of the Erasmus programme

Although considered by many as the Father of Erasmus, there were many who were centrally involved, as Sutherland himself explained in an interview with UCD’s University Observer in 2016. These included Hywel Ceri Jones, who was involved in the original pilot of the scheme in the late 1970s and who would later become head of the EU executive’s education policies. Whatever about discussions on the paternity of Erasmus, Sutherland has of course been described elsewhere as the father of globalisation. This was in recognition of what he achieved with the World Trade Organisation, but of course that global perspective has also characterised his other work, including more recently with the UN on migration.

Erasmus+ was also in the news in the context of Brexit with uncertainty about the future participation of the UK in the programme. It was a source of much comfort for many in December when Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed the UK would still be involved in Erasmus+ after March 2019. Its longer term participation is among the issues likely to be discussed during the next stage of negotiations. 

The media coverage on these events has drawn attention here in Ireland to our own participation in the programme, now managed between Léargas and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). This is important given our development as a country, including our peripheral situation separated from the European mainland and a history of all sorts of comings and goings over the centuries to and from mainland Europe and beyond.  

Perhaps Ireland’s record in European educational mobility can be best traced to the period when it built a reputation as the Island of saints and scholars. In fact, Robert Schuman, one of the leading lights in the early days of what has since become the European Commission, emphasised more than once that St. Columbanus (543-615) was their own adopted patron saint as they set about constructing the future European project. The Irish saint travelled throughout Europe founding monasteries such as Luxeuil in present-day France and Bobbio in Italy. We should also note that among the numerous awards he received, Sutherland was awarded the Robert Schuman medal in 1988 for his work on integration. 

As a teacher, educationist and someone who spent time in various locations in Europe, he represents what the Erasmus programme would seek to promote

But while participation in Erasmus+ plays a major role in Ireland’s development, it is worth reflecting on the man who gave his name to the programme, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466 – 1536). Of course, the name is also an acronym for the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Erasmus was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. His baptismal name, Erasmus, from the Greek word for "beloved", was chosen in homage to St. Erasmus of Formiae in Italy (also known as St. Elmo with whom is associated St. Elmo's Fire).

But back to Erasmus from Rotterdam. As a teacher educationist and someone who spent his life in various locations throughout Europe, just like Sutherland, he represents much of what the Erasmus programme would later seek to promote. He was the author of various educational works, including Institutio principis Christiani (Education of a Christian Prince), written as advice for the young King Charles of Spain, later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It was a counter to the ideas expressed in Machiavelli’s The Prince, which had advocated for a policy of the end justifying the means.  

Erasmus was a person of wide learning who spent much of his time travelling throughout Europe, promoting values that have since become part of the core of the European spirit. What is remarkable is that so many parallels can be drawn with the life of Sutherland. Already, the various tributes have begun to illustrate this, celebrating his life as a polymath, who used his considerable skill and influence to lead and advance progress on so many fronts. 

Cathal De Paor is a senior lecturer and Director of Continuing Professional Development at the Faculty of Education at Mary Immaculate College

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ