Back home early: when Erasmus goes wrong

Trinity News speaks to students who chose to leave their Erasmus programmes about the systemic problems that pushed them back to Trinity

(The students interviewed have been named after members of the Spice Girls in order to protect their identities.)

“I really didn’t want to quit,” Victoria said, “but I was dreading going back.” When Victoria, a Joint Honours student on exchange in a German speaking university, found herself burnt out and unable to complete the year, she had no choice but to reach out to her Erasmus coordinator, who said: “you have two options, you can try and sit the exams or you can just quit while you’re ahead.”

Victoria knew her only option was to go off-books. “I didn’t accept it for a while,” she told Trinity News. “But when I came back, I realised that’s what so many people have done.” 

Victoria is part of a group of students rarely acknowledged by college: students who had to leave their Erasmus programmes early. The decision to return to Trinity wasn’t an easy one for any student, but sometimes it is the best option available in the face of administrative shortcomings and intense academic pressure. 

Often, the issues that make completing Erasmus impossible start with Trinity’s Learning Agreement. This is the list of modules a student makes for themselves before their exchange begins; it’s essentially a contract that both universities have to sign, approving what classes are appropriate for the student’s degree to ensure that they are equivalent to their home department’s credit requirements.

It’s so old fashioned and I don’t understand why”

Geri, currently on Erasmus in the Netherlands, explained: “It sucked, because [her host university] replied the day I sent [the Learning Agreement], and Trinity… It’s been a month now and they still haven’t got back to me.” The majority of European universities use an online portal – the OLA (Online Learning Agreement) – to organise the contract, but “for TCD, you can only do it through a Word document, which slows down the process completely. It’s so old fashioned and I don’t understand why.” These delays have serious consequences: a student can’t receive their Erasmus grant money until their Learning Agreement is finalised.

Mel, who went on exchange in France last term, found that when she arrived, the information she had used to complete her Learning Agreement was wrong. “I had to do [it] three times, because of misinformation,” Mel said. “Professors themselves didn’t know how many credits their class was.”  While in Ireland, almost all modules are worth 5 or 10 ECTS (or credits). In other European universities, the amount can vary: modules can be worth as little as 2 ECTS. This inconsistency can make building a schedule with a sufficient number of credits extremely frustrating: “The co-ordinators were so unhelpful… even when I emailed professors, they would take almost two weeks to reply. I ended up going to each department myself,” she told Trinity News. By the time she had her schedule, she had missed almost three weeks of classes, and professors refused to give her the slides from the sessions she’d missed. 

Mel was planning on doing a second Erasmus placement in Germany during Hilary Term but decided to return to Trinity instead: “From Germany, step by step instructions were sent to students for registering for classes, look[ing] for housing…but I just knew I couldn’t do it again.” She decided that “in the summer, I can go and enjoy the culture and enjoy learning the language without thinking ‘oh my God, I need to pass this class and survive.’”

Like Mel, Victoria faced seemingly endless challenges with her Learning Agreement. When she began putting it together, she “immediately realised that the ECTS were a lot less than what we have here,” she told Trinity News. “As you know we have to take 30 ECTS no matter what, which for us is roughly five classes, maybe six… I was there taking the equivalent of nine modules [in terms of hours].”

“I didn’t really question it at the beginning,” she explained, because her Learning Agreement was approved by her department at Trinity without issue. The workload and the contact hours that nine modules required quickly became overwhelming: “I didn’t improve my German there at all because I didn’t have the time to socialise with any German speaking people,” she said. 

Another student eventually asked her, “‘Why are you doing 30 credits? Nobody does 30 credits here, it’s usually 20 to 25’,  which is when I got the confirmation that ‘oh, I’m not just burnt out because I’m being lazy’.” She continued: “Nobody told me that it wasn’t okay. I was thinking, oh maybe this is what Erasmus is like.” 

Looking back on the experience, Victoria realised that “it wasn’t the [host university] that was the problem, it was Trinity,” she said.

Both of these choices mean repeating third year in full back at Trinity”

If a student realises that their Erasmus programme isn’t right for them, they have four weeks after the beginning of the college term to re-enroll in their classes at Trinity. After this, going off-books or sitting the host university’s exams – even knowing they won’t pass – are the only options. Both of these choices mean repeating third year in full back at Trinity. 

When Victoria chose to go off-books (leaving college for the year) after two months, she felt totally isolated: “you’re made to feel like you’re the only one that’s going through that.” In September she realised this was far from the truth: “in my class there’s so many of us, that are all repeating the year.”

One of those 20, Emma, chose to finish the year in her host university in Spain rather than go off-books. Though her modules in Spain were around four to six credits each, she still struggled with administrative delays: “We only got officially enrolled around Halloween. So it was six weeks of being in limbo,” she told Trinity News. 

Emma felt like the experience of her friends from other countries was far easier. Firstly, they had comparatively smaller workloads than Trinity students: “For the modules I had to do, it was really difficult to get it to work with the timetable… you’re actually so restricted.” Secondly, when Emma learned that she would need to resit some exams, she was – unlike her peers –  made to fly back to Spain by Trinity: “I’m pretty sure with UL and other places, you can just do the repeat at home, whereas Trinity makes you fly back, [despite] the expense of the flights and accommodation in the middle of summer.” 

When she failed a resit, Emma found she had to make a difficult choice: “The nightmare of being unable to progress and having to decide whether to repeat in full or go off-books [taking exams but not attending classes] … the implications of having to repeat in full, it’s like 5,800 euro.” If a student repeats the year after failing exams, they’re no longer eligible for the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant. 

Given each of the four interviewees’ experiences, Trinity News asked them what they wished they had known before going on Erasmus. 

“Email everyone before arriving,” Mel said regarding the French system. “It took two to three weeks for everyone to reply. Nothing’s online, it’s all printed out … if you didn’t have a physical copy of a relevant form, you’d be sent away.”

“The society culture of Trinity, it just doesn’t exist [in the Netherlands] at all,” Geri told Trinity News. “The student associations are more like fraternities… it’s all about networking.”

“I didn’t realise how much I would be doing these things independently … and it’s my fault if it goes wrong,” Victoria told Trinity News. “I wish I had been warned about how much it’s all your own decision, you’ve got to do a lot of your own research and your own planning. You don’t have to do that here, your timetable is worked out for you.”

Emma said: “I would be very aware of the fact that it might result in repeating the year, and then having to decide if it’s worth it or not.” She added: “I’m still grateful to have had that opportunity.”