Every year about 2,000 MU students study abroad, and roughly 1,000 international students come to MU. Nearly 75 percent of such exchanges occur through the Erasmus+ programme. Digitalizing this programme will save the University half a tonne of paper every year and will reduce the time students deal with paperwork to one week. MU is a digitalization leader in the Czech Republic and Europe.
The European Commission initiative “Erasmus without Paper” (EWP) aims to digitalize Erasmus administration at all universities across Europe. A single common technical standard has been developed that allows universities to communicate directly and share information and documents related to exchanges.
“For four years already, we have been working on connecting our in-house IS OIS system, in which we administer all exchange placements at MU, to the EWP network. It is an extremely difficult process, but the results are already worth it. Thanks to digitalization, students can take care of all the paperwork in a week instead of a month,” explains Violeta Osouchová, director of MU’s Centre for International Cooperation (CZS), the university-wide international department that oversees the entire process of digitalizing Erasmus.
Joining EWP is mandatory across Europe
All universities in the 27 member countries of the European Union and in six non-EU countries (Norway, Island, Lichtenstein, Turkey, Serbia, and North Macedonia) are required to join the EWP network. In total, this requirement affects more than 4,000 universities in Europe.
Digitalizing Erasmus has been broken up into five stages and is scheduled for completion in 2026. By last June, universities had to digitalize learning agreements, which are signed between students, their home universities, and partner universities. Masaryk University was one of the few universities in Europe that managed to meet this deadline.
“Digitalizing learning agreements was the first major step towards significantly reducing paperwork not only for coordinators but also for students. For years, learning agreements were signed by hand, and by four people no less: the student, the coordinator at the student’s department, the coordinator at MU, and the coordinator at the partner university. As a result, every agreement was printed and scanned four times, which meant 6,000 pieces of paper were unnecessarily printed every year,” explains Nikola Maráková, the main digitalization coordinator at the CZS.
Currently, about 75 percent of European universities have digitalized the learning agreement process, which means that some of MU partner universities still sign agreements “the old way” and that therefore MU must still accept paper learning agreements. By the end of 2023, however, all universities must have this process digitalized. Thanks to this, all involved parties will be able to sign an agreement in a matter of seconds.
The next stages of digitalization: Interuniversity agreements, transcripts, and other types of mobility
The next phase involves digitalizing interinstitutional agreements, that is, partnership agreements between universities. Currently, Masaryk University has signed more than 1,200 agreements with 496 different European universities. Each is at least eight pages long. Digitalizing this process will thus save tens of thousands of pieces of paper and hundreds of emails between universities. In the future, coordinators will be able to do everything they need to do with a few mouse clicks.
Masaryk University signed its first electronic partnership agreement at the end of November, and as one of few universities in Europe, it already possesses a technological solution that fully meets EWP requirements, whereas other European universities are behind in digitalizing this process. Less than half of universities are prepared for electronically signing agreements.
“Creating a technological solution that would connect our IS OIS with the EWP network was extremely difficult. It took months of programming, often including weekends. And there was the stress that we wouldn’t meet the tight deadline. I would estimate it required one year of full-time work. Of course, we aren’t done with this process yet, and from the perspective of the 2021–2027 Erasmus programming period, I’d say we are more at the beginning,” says the developer of IS OIS, Jiří Petrželka from the CZS.
Once the University completes the second phase of digitalization, it will begin digitalizing transcripts of records, the documents that universities send to each other that contain information about the grades students receive abroad. This process will also be very complicated because it will need to comply with Czech legislation and because the EWP network will need to be connected not only with IS OIS but also with IS.
Alongside transcripts, the nomination process, in which universities share data about newly selected students, will also be digitalized. This process is still done by hand at MU in Excel, and it takes more than a month of work.
Following that, MU will digitalize participation agreements, on the basis of which students receive stipends from MU for exchanges. To complete this phase of digitalization, however, MU will need to resolve one problem: most students do not have electronic signatures, but without them it will be impossible to send money to the students’ accounts. In the fifth phase, other types of mobility will be digitalized, for example, internships arranged through Erasmus+, Erasmus+ ICM exchanges outside Europe, and teaching and training placements for MU employees.
“The Erasmus+ programme is the display case of the European Union, and digitalizing and simplifying the process is a great priority for the European Union. It is an equally great priority for us at Masaryk University. The simpler Erasmus will be, the more willing students will be to go abroad. And that is our goal – for studying abroad to become a natural part of studying at MU and for all our graduates to have international experience,” says CZS director Violeta Osouchová.