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Academic cooperation in the Mediterranean area: taking stock of developments

In the European Union (but not only), academic cooperation has been a reality for many years now, forging whole generations of students, contributing to the development of a European identity, lowering down the cultural and linguistic barriers that once used to divide people. Students are nowadays more and more used to the idea of spending part of their study period abroad and the European Union is further working to enable more and more youngsters to enjoy an exchange in another country, also in other fields such as vocational training. 
But how realistic is the dream of replicating this success story in the Mediterranean basin? What is going on in the field of academic cooperation in the Southern Mediterranean? Academic cooperation is already a component of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The tools used by the EU in this area are different: Erasmus+ in the field of higher education and youth; Marie Sklodowska Curie for the mobility of researchers and the European Training Foundation to support the reform of vocational education and training systems. Moreover, since 2012, every other year a policy dialogue has been held between the EU and the Southern Mediterranean countries. Its objective is to provide a regional platform for exchanges on higher education, to share good practice and experience among the participants, evaluate EU assistance and identify further support needs and to promote regional cooperation. The next policy dialogue will take place on 9-10 July this year in Brussels, and it will cover the topic “Improving the quality of teacher education”.  
Furthermore, there are long-established organisations operating in the Southern Mediterranean and fostering cooperation in the academic sector in this challenging part of the world. The biggest one is UNIMED, an association of 108 Universities from 23 Mediterranean countries, founded in 1991. Since its foundation, UNIMED has been advocating for students, researchers and staff mobility and for integration in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Lately, it launched a petition for an Erasmus+ in the Mediterranean. The petition calls on increasing the International Credit Mobility of the Erasmus+ for the next programming period (2021-2027), rising the number of scholarships from 8 000 up to 30 000 and on supporting the development of the Southern Mediterranean regional mobility scheme (the so-called “south-south mobility”). Also the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) has made higher education one of its priority areas, supporting different programmes for educational cooperation in the Mediterranean. UfM gave its label to the Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI),  founded in 2008 and bringing together 130 universities from 33 countries. EMUNI is based in Slovenia and its main mission is that of creating specialised study programmes among the Euro-Mediterranean universities. 
Despite the continuous work of such organisations, academic cooperation in the Mediterranean area seems to proceed rather slowly. It is not clear how many people have so far benefitted from the exchange programmes offered by these partnerships, as related data is pending. Moreover, exchanges take place in most cases along the South-North axis, rather than along the “South-South” axis, showing one more time the dramatic fractures dividing the Southern countries and the difficulty of the cooperation among them.