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Draft recommendation of the European Ombudsman in his inquiry into complaint 3031/2007/(BEH)VL against the European Commission

Available languages: en
  • Case: 3031/2007/(BEH)VL
    Opened on 17 Dec 2007 - Draft recommendation on 09 Feb 2011 - Decision on 21 Dec 2011, 21 Dec 2011
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Commission
  • Field(s) of law: Science, information, education and culture
  • Types of maladministration alleged – (i) breach of, or (ii) breach of duties relating to: Legitimate expectations, consistency and advice [Article 10 ECGAB]
  • Subject matter(s): Execution of contracts

Made in accordance with Article 3(6) of the Statute of the European Ombudsman[1]

The background to the complaint

1. The complainant, a Canadian national, enrolled as a student at the Technische Universität München and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid for the European Master Course in Aeronautics and Space Technology ('EuMAS 2006-2008'). The studies were organised under the European Commission's first Erasmus Mundus programme ('Erasmus Mundus I Programme'). The Erasmus Mundus I Programme offered scholarships amounting to EUR 21 000 per year to third-country students for specific preselected master's courses which were offered jointly by consortia of European universities.

2. According to a flyer published by the Commission, Erasmus Mundus scholarships covered "all travel costs and full living costs in Europe throughout the masters programme". On its relevant website, the Commission further explained that "[t]he scholarship covers your travel and living expenses and tuition in Europe for the full duration of the course".

3. On 17 April 2007, the complainant contacted the coordinator of the Erasmus Mundus I Programme at the Commission to inform it that the EuMAS 2006-2008 students found themselves in serious financial difficulty as a result of being charged tuition fees amounting to EUR 12 000 per year for the EuMAS 2006-2008. He pointed out that he and his fellow students received a grant of EUR 21 000 per year of study, of which a fixed amount of EUR 5 000 was reserved for travel expenses, relocation costs and related fees. The balance of EUR 16 000 was to be disbursed in ten monthly instalments of EUR 1 600. Consequently, after the deduction of tuition fees from that amount, the EuMAS 2006-2008 students were left to live on a yearly allowance of only EUR 4 000. The complainant provided figures indicating the high cost of student accommodation and urban transport in Munich. He also submitted that it was extremely difficult for students from third countries to estimate the cost of living in Europe prior to their arrival. He asked the Commission for its opinion on whether the tuition fees of EUR 12 000 could be compatible with the Erasmus Mundus I Programme and the German legislation. The complainant expressed the hope that, for the benefit of all students concerned, the terms of the scholarship could be reconsidered so as to allow them to benefit fully from their stay in Europe, and fulfil the objectives of the Erasmus Mundus I Programme.

4. On 25 June 2007, following several unsuccessful attempts by telephone and e-mail to obtain a reply, the complainant wrote to the Director of the Commission's Directorate-General (DG) for Education and Culture. On 28 June 2007, the Director informed the complainant that he would receive an answer within a few days from the Head of Unit for the Erasmus Mundus I Programme. He added that the complainant's e-mail led him to conclude that "all students should know before selecting their [Erasmus Mundus] master courses the amount of the tuition and fees they will have to pay."

5. On 2 July 2007, the Head of Unit for the Erasmus Mundus I Programme wrote to the complainant. She apologised for her delay in replying, and expressed the Commission's understanding for the complainant's point of view and the financial difficulty in which the EuMAS 2006-2008 students found themselves. At the same time, however, she submitted that the course fees had been clearly indicated on the EuMAS website. She added that applications in 2007 for funding under the Erasmus Mundus programme would require candidate consortia to justify and explain the rationale behind the tuition fees which students are asked to pay. The Head of Unit also pointed out that the Commission had learnt some lessons from cases such as the complainant's. As a result, in future, it was envisaged that all course organisers would be requested to state very clearly on their websites exactly which costs were covered by the tuition fee, as well as the cost of living in each potential place of study.

6. In a letter dated 20 July 2007, the complainant reiterated his original complaint and argued that the content of the Commission's flyer was misleading in so far as the EuMAS 2006-2008 students were concerned. He stressed that the monthly allowance received by international students amounted to EUR 400, a sum which represented less than 45% of the German poverty threshold. From the Commission's reply, he concluded that, when it was decided that EUR 12 000 should be allocated for EuMAS tuition fees, no assessment was made as to whether, once that amount was deducted, the scholarships were acceptable in view of the objectives of the Erasmus Mundus I Programme. While expressing satisfaction at the fact that the Commission had learnt some lessons from the experiences of the EuMAS 2006-2008 students, the complainant explained that the future measures envisaged by the Commission did nothing to improve the situation at hand. He therefore asked the Commission to propose some means of helping the students concerned, for example, by granting supplementary funding. Finally, the complainant suggested that a meeting should be arranged in Brussels between the EuMAS 2006-2008 students and Commission representatives.

7. In its reply dated 31 July 2007, the Commission pointed out that the total amount of the Erasmus Mundus scholarship was EUR 21 000 per year. It added that this amount was intended to cover "travel expenses, registration and tuition fees, establishment and relocation costs, teaching material and living costs". It went on to explain that the EuMAS tuition fees are among the highest for Erasmus Mundus master's courses, due to its particular structure and characteristics. The Commission underlined that no supplementary funding was available, but recommended that the students should approach the EuMAS consortium and request additional scholarships or a waiver of tuition fees. As regards the meeting suggested by the complainant, the Commission indicated its availability in September 2007.

8. In a further letter dated 4 September 2007, the complainant essentially reiterated his grievances.

9. Representatives of EuMAS 2006-2008 students met with Commission officials in September and October 2007. However, no mutually agreeable solution in terms of a financial contribution could be found.

The subject matter of the inquiry

10. As a result of the foregoing, the complainant submitted a complaint to the European Ombudsman on behalf of the EuMAS 2006-2008 students. The complainant's allegations and claim can be summarised as follows:

(1) The Commission misinformed postgraduate students participating in the EuMAS 2006-2008 programme about the structure of Erasmus Mundus scholarships. According to a leaflet published by the Commission, Erasmus Mundus scholarships covered "all travel costs and full living costs in Europe throughout the masters programme"; according to the Commission's website Erasmus scholarships covered "travel and living expenses and tuition in Europe for the full duration of the course". In spite of the legitimate expectations thus created, recipients of the Erasmus Mundus scholarships enrolled in the EuMAS 2006-2008 programme found themselves in a very difficult financial situation after their arrival in Europe and were left to live on a monthly allowance of EUR 400 in Munich and Madrid.

(2) The Commission failed to abide by its Code of Good Administrative Behaviour. Notably, (a) the complainant's letter of 17 April 2007 remained unanswered for more than two months, and (b) in general, answers provided by the Commission deviated from the questions asked.

The complainant claimed that the Commission should fulfil its engagements of providing financial security to Erasmus Mundus students.

The inquiry

11. On 25 November 2007, the complainant lodged the present complaint.

12. On 17 December 2007, the Ombudsman opened an inquiry and asked the Commission to provide an opinion by 31 March 2008.

13. On 2 June 2008, following two requests to extend the deadline for its reply, the Commission provided the Ombudsman with its opinion.

14. On 26 July 2008, the complainant provided his observations on the Commission's opinion.

15. On 23 September 2008, the Ombudsman requested the Commission to reply to a number of questions by 30 November 2008.

16. On 3 February 2009, the Commission replied to the Ombudsman's letter of 23 September 2008. This reply was transmitted to the complainant, who sent his observations on 15 May 2009.

17. On 19 February 2010, the Ombudsman submitted a proposal for a friendly solution to the Commission. On 18 June 2010, the Commission sent its reply to the Ombudsman's proposal.

18. The Commission's reply was forwarded to the complainant, who sent his observations on 30 September 2010.

The Ombudsman's analysis and conclusions

A. As regards the alleged misinformation, the alleged failure to respect the legitimate expectations of the students concerned, and the relevant claim

Arguments presented to the Ombudsman

19. In his complaint, the complainant submitted that the EuMAS students were misinformed by the Commission as regards the Erasmus Mundus scholarship, and that their resulting legitimate expectations were disregarded. Although the Commission had announced, in its leaflet and in information published on its relevant website, that all travel costs, tuition fees, and living costs would be covered throughout the master's programme, students had, in fact, been left to live on EUR 400 a month in Munich and Madrid, where, in general, no low-cost accommodation for students was available. Recipients of an Erasmus Mundus scholarship, which aims to attract highly qualified post-graduate students to study at European universities, were thus forced to live below the local poverty threshold. The complainant claimed that the Commission should fulfil its engagement to provide Erasmus Mundus students with financial security.

20. In its opinion, the Commission took the view that there had been no maladministration. It argued that the information contained in the flyer, according to which "scholarships cover travel costs and full living costs in Europe throughout the masters programme", indicated that scholarships covered certain types of costs. However, the information set out in a flyer could not be expected to be exhaustive and to cover all aspects of a complex programme such as the Erasmus Mundus I Programme. The Commission further pointed out that the flyer also indicated that students had to apply directly for the course of their choice and that they had to ensure that they read the application and admission conditions carefully. Detailed information was available on its website or by contacting the Education, Audiovisual, and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). The organisers of Erasmus Mundus master's courses were required to establish their own transparent application, admission procedures and selection procedures for third-country students and scholars, in accordance with national legislation. These procedures had to be explained in detail, communicated to the Commission, and published on the websites for master's courses.

21. The Commission presented a copy of an agreement, signed by the complainant and the EuMAS course coordinator. The Commission argued that, on the basis of this agreement, the complainant should have been aware that the tuition fee amounted to EUR 12 000 and that it would be withheld from the EUR 21 000 scholarship. As a consequence, the complainant should also have been aware of the fact that he would be left with EUR 9 000 for his travel and living costs for the academic year.

22. The complainant drew attention to the following information, which was published on the Commission's website:

"The scholarship covers your travel and living expenses and tuition in Europe for the full duration of the course."

"For each student the scholarship amounts to 21 000 Euro per academic year. This includes 10 monthly grants of 1 600 Euro and a fixed amount of 5 000 Euro for fees, travel expenses, relocation costs, etc."

The complainant added that the second statement had since been altered on the Commission's website. He reiterated that, since EUR 5 000 were designated for travel expenses, relocation costs and related fees, and the tuition fees amounted to EUR 12 000, the EuMAS students were in effect left with only EUR 400 per month to live on during the academic year. He repeated that this was not enough for a student living in Munich and Madrid. In his view, the Commission had misinformed students by encouraging them to come to Europe with a promise of a scholarship that would cover travel costs, tuition fees and living costs. Once in Europe, the students had to borrow money, or live in conditions which were incompatible with the Erasmus Mundus programme, and prejudicial to the experience and education that they were supposed to obtain. The complainant repeated his claim for financial compensation or supplementary funding to be granted to the EuMAS 2006-2008 students.

23. As regards the agreement between himself and the EuMAS coordinator to which the Commission referred, the complainant acknowledged that the tuition fees were published in advance and that they were mandatory for Erasmus Mundus students. He emphasised, however, that his complaint was not about the level of tuition fees charged by the EuMAS consortium, but about the Commission's failure to live up to its promise that the scholarship would cover travel costs, tuition fees, and living costs.

24. The complainant disagreed with the Commission's assertion that he would have been left with EUR 9 000 for his travel and living expenses over a period of nine months. He stressed again that a fixed amount of EUR 5 000 was reserved for the travel costs to Europe and relocation costs. The distinction between travel costs and the living allowance had been clearly stated on the Commission's website[2]. Therefore, students were left with a monthly allowance of EUR 400. The complainant considered it important to clarify that the academic year ran for ten months and not nine, as claimed by the Commission. To be more precise, the official study period of the EuMAS programme ran from 18 September 2006 until 31 July 2007 in Munich, and from 17 September 2007 until 14 July 2008 in Madrid.

25. In its reply to the Ombudsman's further inquiries, the Commission rejected the complainant's arguments. It submitted that its designation of certain amounts of the total sum of EUR 21 000 for specific costs had been merely indicative and that this general information had to be read together with the specific information available on each master's course website, such as the one for the EuMAS. However, since some students seemed to have misunderstood that information, the Commission had since revised the information published on its website. The Commission argued that the complainant's statement that "5 000 EUR [were] reserved to cover travel expenses, relocation costs and related fees" constituted an incorrect reading of the text.

26. The Commission pointed out that the amount of EUR 5 000 was mentioned in relation to "fees, travel expenses and relocation costs, etc" and that the term "fees" referred to tuition fees, and not to travel expenses and relocation costs. It therefore rejected the complainant's assertion that the monthly grant of EUR 1 600 was reserved for tuition fees and living expenses and that the EuMAS students had been left with only EUR 400 for living expenses.

27. In order to clarify the structure of the financial means available to the EuMAS students, the Commission presented the following table:

Theoretical EM scholarship breakdown (general case)

Real "EuMAS" scholarship breakdown

EUR 5 000 (to cover tuition fees, travel costs and relocation costs)

EUR 14 500

EUR 12 000 (tuition fees)

Approx. EUR 1 500 (travel costs)[3]

Approx. EUR 1 000 (relocation costs)[4]

EUR 16 000 (10 monthly allowances of EUR 1 600 each)

EUR 6 500 (10 monthly allowances of EUR 650 each)

The Commission took the view that EUR 650 per month, while not generous, would be sufficient to cover EUR 300 for accommodation costs and EUR 60 for travel expenses which the complainant indicated in his letter dated 17 April 2007. The Commission noted that EUR 290 would thus have been left for other expenses.

28. The Commission pointed out that, in its letters dated 28 June 2007 and 2 July 2007, it had acknowledged and expressed its sympathy for the fact that the complainant was in a difficult financial situation. However, it added that the complainant must have been aware of the amount of the tuition fees, since it had been published on the master's course website, and he had signed the agreement with the EuMAS coordinator. As regards the lessons learnt from the complainant's case and its corrective actions for the future, the Commission explained that its plan was to request all future course organisers to clearly state the sum required for tuition fees and the sum which would remain from the scholarship, after deduction of tuition fees, to cover living expenses in each place of study. Following an analysis of the courses' websites, the EACEA made observations to the consortia to enable them to improve the information published. In addition, the Commission announced that, for the Erasmus Mundus II Programme, it was foreseen that a part of the scholarship grant would be reserved so that all students would receive the "same reasonable amount for costs of living independent from tuition fees charged by individual masters courses".

29. In response, the complainant pointed out that the EuMAS students had proposed at a meeting with the Commission that there should be a set minimum amount for living costs. He further stated that the Commission had not indicated some of the important changes it had made to remedy the problems identified in the Erasmus Mundus I Programme. The complainant pointed out that the scholarship under the Erasmus Mundus II Programme[5] was structured as follows:

I

Contribution to travel, installation and any other type of costs

EUR 4 000 for a one-year master's course, EUR 8 000 for courses longer than one year

II

Maximum contribution to the Erasmus Mundus master's course participation costs[6] (including insurance coverage)

EUR 4 000 per semester

III

Monthly allowance

EUR 1 000 per month

 

Total

From EUR 24 000 for one-year master's courses, to EUR 48 000 for a two-year master's course

The complainant noted that the Commission thus continued to allocate the scholarship in such a way as to reserve specific amounts for relocation, tuition and living expenses. However, in particular, the complainant stressed that the Erasmus Mundus II Programme ensured that students receive a living allowance of EUR 1 000.

30. The complainant accepted the possibility that the first Erasmus Mundus programme might not have been sufficiently "fine-tuned". However, he considered that, where misinformation had occurred, it was the responsibility of the Commission to remedy the damage caused. Therefore, he suggested that the Commission should pay the EuMAS 2006-2008 students the difference between the living allowance received (EUR 400), and the basic income considered to be the minimum that was necessary in order to enjoy a decent standard of living by European standards, and above EUR 1 000, the sum perceived by the Commission to be the poverty threshold.

31. The complainant further argued that the term "fees", as used in relation to the fixed amount of EUR 5 000, referred to mobility expenses. He supported this view with three arguments. First, from a semantic point of view, the word "etc" implied that the items enumerated were of the same nature. Second, the amount of EUR 5 000 was supposed to be paid out as a lump sum at the beginning of the course, and not on a regular basis. Finally, in the Erasmus Mundus II Programme, the contribution to relocation expenses was approximately the same as in the previous programme, and separate from the tuition fees.

32. The complainant criticised the Commission for indirectly reducing the students' mobility allowance from EUR 5 000 to EUR 2 500 without justification, if it were to apply the calculations presented in its comments. Furthermore, it had not explained how it arrived at the approximate amounts indicated for travel expenses and relocation costs. The complainant further stated that he disagreed with the Commission's approach of comparing the fictitious allowance of EUR 650 with the very minimum cost of living mentioned in his letter of 17 April 2007. He added that the Commission had not explained how it reached the conclusion that EUR 650 would be sufficient for a student to live on in Munich or Madrid. In the complainant's view, it had conveniently failed to compare the amount it proposed with (i) the more accurate analysis of living costs he had outlined in his letter of 27[7] July 2007, (ii) the official poverty threshold in Germany, and (iii) the minimum amount which the Spanish government considered necessary for someone to support himself in Spain. According to the complainant, these three sources showed that the absolute minimum allowance necessary for subsistence in Munich and Madrid was EUR 1 000 per month.

The Ombudsman's preliminary assessment leading to a friendly solution proposal

33. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, the Ombudsman clarified that the present inquiry concerned information provided by the Commission to third-country students regarding the Erasmus Mundus scholarship for the EuMAS 2006-2008. The information provided by the Commission concerned the Erasmus Mundus I Programme. The present inquiry did not concern the subsequent Erasmus Mundus II Programme. It concerned only those third-country students who took part in the EuMAS 2006-2008 on an Erasmus Mundus scholarship. Although no actual figures had been submitted to the Ombudsman, he considered it fair to assume that the present inquiry applied to a fairly small number of students. The Ombudsman also pointed out that the present inquiry concerned the Commission, and not the EuMAS consortia members, or the appropriateness of the tuition fees charged by them for the said master's course.

34. The Ombudsman noted that the complainant, in essence, alleged that the Commission, through the information made available in its promotional leaflet and on its relevant website, misinformed third-country students wishing to apply for Erasmus Mundus scholarships for the EuMAS 2006-2008 about how much money would actually be at their disposal to cover their living expenses. Given the information provided in the leaflet and on the website, the students were, in the complainant's opinion, entitled to expect that the Erasmus Mundus scholarship would provide them with enough money to enjoy a decent standard of living by European standards, and that the sum foreseen would equal or exceed EUR 1 000 per month.

35. The Ombudsman accepted the Commission's argument that information contained in a promotional leaflet could not be expected to give complete information on a complex funding programme such as the one at issue in the present case. However, the same could not be said of information published on a website dedicated to that very issue. The Ombudsman considered it reasonable to expect such information to contain correct and reliable guidance for potential applicants. As regards the present case, the Ombudsman noted that the Commission's website clearly stated that the scholarship was intended to cover travel costs, tuition fees, and living costs for the full duration of the course. According to the information which the Commission made available to potential applicants, the scholarship amounted to EUR 21 000 per year. It stated that part of this amount (EUR 5 000) was intended to cover tuition fees, travel costs, and relocation costs, and that students were to receive a monthly allowance of EUR 1 600. The Ombudsman noted that the Commission did not dispute this. The Ombudsman, therefore, found the complainant's argument persuasive when he claimed that the information provided by the Commission led him and his fellow students to believe that the scholarship would provide them with a sufficient amount of money to enable them to enjoy a decent standard of living by European standards.

36. In its opinion, the Commission referred to an agreement that the complainant signed with the EuMAS coordinator in the early weeks of the master's course. According to this agreement, the EuMAS consortium was entitled to retain a sum that corresponded to the annual tuition fees from the scholarship to be disbursed. The Commission argued that the complainant must therefore have known what the tuition fees were, and that only the remainder of the scholarship would be available to cover his travel expenses and living costs. The Ombudsman found it difficult to see the relevance of this argument in the case at hand, since the present inquiry concerned the Commission's alleged failure to provide those students from third countries who were interested in taking part in the EuMAS 2006-2008 with correct and reliable information regarding the financial means that would be granted to them. It was obviously on the basis of this information that these students had applied for the master's course before they travelled to the EU to start their studies. The Commission had therefore failed to establish the relevance to the Ombudsman's inquiry of the above-mentioned agreement which the complainant signed after arriving in Munich and starting his studies.

37. The core question to be addressed was, therefore, whether the scholarship granted by the Commission was sufficient to cover "all travel costs and full living costs in Europe throughout the masters programme" or, as the complainant had put it, to enable him and his fellow students to enjoy a decent standard of living by European standards.

38. The Ombudsman noted that the complainant and the Commission were at odds as regards the monthly amount available to EuMAS students for their living costs, for which the parties put forward their own separate calculations. In this context, the Ombudsman considered it useful to make a number of observations at the outset.

39. First, the Commission submitted that travel and relocation costs could be estimated at approximately EUR 2 500. The Ombudsman noted that the present case did not concern the complainant alone, but also his fellow students. It was, therefore, conceivable that the figures put forward by the Commission might not cover the costs of each individual EuMAS student concerned, in particular as regards travel costs. The Ombudsman, however, further noted that, when the complainant challenged the Commission's figures, he did not provide figures for the specific costs incurred by him, or his fellow students for their respective travel and relocation costs. In the absence of any other figures, and subject to the above proviso, the Ombudsman therefore considered it appropriate to base his examination on the figure suggested by the Commission.

40. Second, the Ombudsman noted that the parties disagreed as to the exact purpose of the EUR 5 000 specifically mentioned on the Commission's relevant website. In the complainant's view, this amount was intended to cover travel costs and relocation costs exclusively, but not tuition fees. If one were to follow the complainant's logic, the tuition fees would have been covered by the remaining EUR 16 000. The complainant seemed further to suggest that, once the actual travel and relocation costs, and related "fees" had been deducted from the EUR 5 000, any remaining balance would not have had to be taken into consideration when calculating the amount left for living expenses. The Ombudsman was not convinced by this interpretation. He pointed out that the information published on the Commission's website referred to "a fixed amount of 5 000 Euro for fees, travel expenses, relocation costs, etc". In his view, it appeared more logical to assume that the Commission intended the relevant amount to cover tuition fees as well as travel and relocation costs. It was true that, on the basis of the Commission's own figures, this would, in fact, have meant that only EUR 2 500 were foreseen to cover tuition fees. This figure was considerably less than the EUR 12 000 which the complainant and his fellow students actually had to pay. It seemed, however, that the actual amount of tuition fees also came as a surprise to the Commission itself. It appeared highly likely that the problem highlighted by the present case would never have arisen if the Commission had ascertained the level of tuition fees before devising its scholarship programme. However, even if one were to accept the complainant's interpretation, the fact remained that EUR 5 000 was disbursed to him and his fellow students. If his own travel costs and relocation costs were less than EUR 5 000, the balance would, therefore, have had to be taken into account when calculating the sum which remained available to him for his living expenses.

41. Third, the Commission based its calculation on the costs of student accommodation and urban transport mentioned in the complainant's letter dated 17 April 2007. The Ombudsman noted that both the complainant and the Commission seemed to agree that EUR 60 would be sufficient to cover the cost of transport between the place of accommodation in Munich and the local university. However, the same conclusion did not apply with regard to the cost of accommodation. It was highlighted that, in the said letter, the complainant explained that student accommodation in Munich at a rent of EUR 300 was not available to EuMAS students. According to the complainant, a number of students had therefore opted for cheaper housing outside Munich (EUR 200 per month). This entailed commuting for three hours every day to and from the university. Alternatively, students could search for rooms in shared accommodation, but they would have to do so in a country whose language they did not speak. This option could cost between EUR 300 and EUR 500 per month. The Ombudsman noted that the Commission's calculation appeared to be reasonable, since it was based on the cost of accommodation in Munich. He further noted, however, that the Commission appeared to have based its calculation either on the cost of the type of student accommodation which was not available to EuMAS students (a fact not disputed by the Commission), or on the minimum amount of rent indicated by the complainant for shared accommodation. Given that (i) the complainant stressed that the latter amount was a minimum, (ii) the actual costs for such accommodation could be as high as EUR 500, and (iii) it could not be excluded that some students had to settle for more expensive accommodation, the Ombudsman considered it far from clear that the amount taken by the Commission as a basis for its calculations was indeed realistic and appropriate.

42. The Ombudsman considered, however, that the complainant's allegation appeared to be justified even if one were to accept the Commission's figures. The Commission itself argued that students received an allowance of EUR 650 per month, which, "while not generous", was sufficient to pay EUR 300 for the cost of accommodation and EUR 60 for travel expenses. The Commission, therefore, appeared to assume that the remaining EUR 290, which would have been "left for other expenses", would have been sufficient. The Ombudsman was by no means convinced that such an amount would be sufficient to cover a student's basic needs, in particular as regards food and drink, in cities such as Munich or Madrid, not to mention any other necessities such as stationery or books.

43. The inadequacy of the amount calculated by the Commission was confirmed by the figures provided by the very same institution. On the basis of the information submitted by the Commission (see paragraph 27), students were supposed to receive a monthly "theoretical" allowance of EUR 1 600, which was intended to cover costs other than costs for travel, relocation, and tuition fees. On the basis of the figures which the Commission quoted there for accommodation and transport, students would have been left with EUR 1 240 for living expenses. In the present case, the Commission argued that, in line with the "real" breakdown, a sum of EUR 290 would have been sufficient. These figures spoke for themselves.

44. Moreover, the complainant had consistently argued that the amount available to him and his fellow students was below the minimum subsistence level and even the poverty thresholds for Munich and Madrid. The Ombudsman noted that the Commission did not address this argument in its letters to the complainant, nor in its submissions in the present inquiry. Furthermore, the Ombudsman noted that, in both its correspondence with the complainant and its supplementary comments, the Commission acknowledged that the complainant was in a difficult financial situation.

45. In any event, the Ombudsman noted that there was no indication whatsoever in the information provided by the Commission to potential applicants that the scholarship would be limited to providing students with the bare minimum on which to survive. The Commission did not challenge the complainant's assertion that the aim of the Erasmus Mundus Programme was to attract highly qualified post-graduate students to study at European universities. As previously stated, the Ombudsman took the view that, from the information provided to them, applicants were entitled to expect that the scholarship would enable them to enjoy a decent standard of living by European standards. In this context, the Ombudsman suggested that it might be useful to consider that, in 2006, trainees working for the Commission in Brussels received a monthly grant of EUR 950.

46. In light of the above, the Ombudsman made the preliminary finding that the information provided by the Commission concerning Erasmus Mundus scholarships for the EuMAS 2006-2008 did not give applicants correct and reliable information regarding the sum that would be made available to them to cover their living expenses. This misinformation could thus have amounted to an instance of maladministration. The Ombudsman, therefore, made a corresponding proposal for a friendly solution below, in accordance with Article 3(5) of the Statute of the European Ombudsman.

47. The Ombudsman pointed out that his mandate was to uncover instances of maladministration in the activities of Union institutions, bodies, agencies or offices. It was not for him to indicate precisely the amount which ought to have been granted to the complainant and his fellow students for them to have enjoyed a decent standard of living by European standards. However, the Ombudsman considered that it might be helpful if he were to make a number of further comments which could serve as useful guidance for the Commission when examining his proposal for a friendly solution.

48. According to the information submitted to the Ombudsman, the Commission envisaged that the recipients of the Erasmus Mundus scholarship would receive EUR 1 600 to cover expenses other than travel costs, relocation costs, and tuition fees. The Ombudsman considered that this would indeed have been a more generous and fitting amount to cover the remaining expenses of the EuMAS 2006-2008 students. On the other hand, the complainant appeared to suggest that EUR 1 000 per month would have been sufficient for the students to sustain themselves in Munich and Madrid. In this context, the Ombudsman considered it useful to note that the Erasmus Mundus II Programme foresaw a monthly allowance of EUR 1 000.

49. The EuMAS 2006-2008 students had since concluded their studies. The complainant asserted that the students had incurred debts in order to sustain themselves as a result of the insufficient amount that remained of their scholarship for living expenses. However, the Ombudsman noted that the complainant did not provide him with any evidence or at least concrete indications as to the debts allegedly incurred by him and his fellow students. In those circumstances, the Ombudsman surmised that the students concerned probably tried to make the best of the disagreeable situation in which they found themselves by limiting their expenses as best they could. If one accepted that the purpose of the scholarship was to cover students' living expenses, it would not be sensible to expect the Commission to pay the students an amount which would represent the difference between what might be considered an appropriate allowance and their actual living expenses. On the other hand, the Ombudsman took the view that, simply because the students managed to make ends meet, despite the difficulties they encountered, this should not be considered as proof that the sum actually provided by the Commission for living expenses was nonetheless satisfactory. The Ombudsman, therefore, considered that the Commission might be well-advised to consider making an additional payment to the students concerned in order to try and compensate them for the difficulties they had to endure. As already mentioned above, the situation of individual students might have differed from one person to another. However, the Ombudsman took the view that the most practical solution would be to make a uniform ex-gratia, equitable, lump-sum payment to each of the students concerned.

50. In this context, the Ombudsman considered it useful to add that, when considering his proposal for a friendly solution to the complaint made by the EuMAS 2006-2008 students, the Commission would be well advised to consider the impact which this case could have on the reputation of the European Union in general. The EuMAS students came to Europe to pursue their advanced studies on the basis of a scholarship which they were led to believe would be sufficient to cover their costs for the full duration of their stay. Upon arrival, they were faced with financial difficulties because the information provided by the Commission was not correct or reliable. By striving to find an appropriate solution to the present case, the Commission could enhance both its reputation and that of post-graduate studies in the European Union in general.

51. The Ombudsman thus made the following proposal for a friendly solution with regard to the first allegation:

"Taking into account the Ombudsman's findings as regards the first allegation, the Commission could consider making a uniform ex gratia, equitable, lump-sum payment to the complainant and each of his fellow EuMAS 2006-2008 third-country students."

B. The Commission's delay in replying to the complainant's correspondence and the alleged deviation of the answers given from the questions asked

Arguments presented to the Ombudsman

52. In his complaint, the complainant criticised the actions of the Commission's administrative staff charged with managing the Erasmus Mundus I Programme. Notably, the complainant alleged that his letter dated April 2007 had been left unanswered for more than two months and that, in general, the answers had deviated from the questions asked.

53. In its opinion, the Commission apologised for the delay in replying to the complainant. It pointed out that it and the EACEA had reacted promptly and efficiently to the complainant's subsequent requests. Furthermore, after an in-depth examination of the matter, it had offered to meet the complainant.

54. In his observations, the complainant accepted the Commission's apologies, but pointed out that it had not commented on the issue of its answers deviating from the questions asked.

55. When questioned about this by the Ombudsman, the Commission replied that it had answered all the complainant's questions. According to the Commission, the only remaining contentious issue between the parties was the complainant's assertion that students were left with only EUR 400 per month for living expenses in Munich.

56. In his observations, the complainant took the view that the Commission's answers again failed to address his questions. He added, however, that this aspect did not form the central part of his complaint and that it could, therefore, be dropped in order to focus on the first allegation.

The Ombudsman's assessment

57. As regards the first aspect of the second allegation concerning the Commission's failure to reply to the complainant, the Commission made an apology, which the complainant accepted. Therefore, no further investigation into this aspect of the complaint was necessary.

58. On 25 January 2010, during a telephone conversation with the Ombudsman's Office, the complainant confirmed that he wished to withdraw the remainder of the second allegation. The Ombudsman therefore took the view that there were no grounds to pursue further this aspect of the complaint.

C. The arguments presented to the Ombudsman after his friendly solution proposal

59. In its reply, the Commission submitted that its communications to potential beneficiaries had always underlined that they had to read carefully the application and admission conditions, including the tuition fees policy, which were published on the specific websites of the relevant master's courses. This advice featured in the leaflet on Erasmus Mundus scholarships (in the "How to apply" section) and on the Erasmus Mundus page of the relevant Commission website. Therefore, it was clear that the information published in the Commission's leaflets and website had to be read together with the specific information on the individual courses, as published on their respective websites. Information on the tuition fees for EU and non-EU students was only available on the master's course websites. This information allowed any diligent applicant to calculate in advance, and before having left his or her home country, the amount left for his or her living costs. The university's website for the EuMAS course clearly stated that the tuition fee was EUR 12 000 per year. Moreover, in his letter of invitation of June 2006, the EuMAS coordinator had informed the complainant about the level of tuition fees before the latter travelled to Europe.

60. The Commission pointed out that nearly one thousand four hundred Erasmus Mundus I students (not only those on the EuMAS course, but also those on other master's courses with comparably high tuition fees) were in a similar situation to the complainant and received the same amount of grants. However, they had not suggested to the Commission that they were misinformed when applying for an Erasmus Mundus grant.

61. The Commission disagreed with the Ombudsman's assumption that the actual amount of tuition fees had come as a surprise to it. It submitted that it had been well aware of the amount of tuition fees charged by the different Erasmus Mundus courses. The consortia participating in the 2004-2008 edition of the Erasmus Mundus Programme had to inform the Commission about the tuition fees they intended to charge. For this reason, the Commission referred applicants to the websites of the different courses in both its leaflets and on its website.

62. The Commission highlighted that, in accordance with the decision establishing the Erasmus Mundus Programme, it was not entitled to fix different scholarship amounts in view of the different levels of tuition fees charged by different master's courses.

63. The Commission regretted that the complainant felt misled by the wording of the leaflet. However, in light of the above submissions, the Commission considered that all diligent applicants could have known from the very outset what impact the tuition fees charged for the course concerned would have on their scholarship. The Commission underlined that the said information was available to them before they travelled to the EU to commence their studies. The complainant had explicitly acknowledged this fact.

64. Given its above submissions, the Commission could not agree with the Ombudsman's statement that the core question to be addressed was whether the scholarship granted by the Commission was sufficient to cover "all travel costs and full living costs in Europe throughout the masters programme". The decision to apply for an Erasmus Mundus grant was not taken on the basis of a leaflet alone, but of the entirety of the information available to the applicant, including the information on the websites specific to the individual courses.

65. In view of the foregoing arguments, the Commission did not agree with the Ombudsman's proposal for a friendly solution.

66. In response, the complainant took the view that the Commission had largely failed to put forward new information or arguments. It had commented on specific points raised in the complaint and not, as it was asked to, on the proposal for a friendly solution. The complainant took the view that it would be unproductive to submit lengthy arguments on points that had already been discussed in great detail. Therefore, he decided to limit himself to a number of comments on central issues.

67. The complainant stressed that both he and the Ombudsman considered it reasonable to expect that information published on the Commission's website would contain correct and reliable guidance for potential applicants.

68. The complainant further stressed that he had never disputed that the EuMAS 2006-2008 students were aware of the tuition fees. He underlined that the present inquiry did not concern the amount of tuition fees charged by the EuMAS consortium, but the information communicated by the Commission. This information had led applicants to the Erasmus Mundus I Programme to believe that the scholarship would be sufficient to cover their costs for the full duration of their stay.

69. The complainant took the view that the Ombudsman's proposal for a friendly solution clearly demonstrated that Erasmus Mundus I applicants could legitimately assume that the scholarship sufficed to pay for their tuition and travel expenses and provide them with an acceptable level of living in Europe.

70. As regards the Commission's argument relating to the number of students concerned, the complainant pointed out that less than 30 students of EuMAS 2006/2008 received an Erasmus Mundus scholarship. The Commission stated that over 1 400 students could have been affected by its misinformation. The complainant noted that the Commission did not specify in which Erasmus Mundus Programme these students participated or the circumstances they might have found themselves in. However, such figures were indispensable in order to compare the detrimental living conditions of the roughly 30 EuMAS 2006-2008 students with those of the over 1 400 other Erasmus Mundus students.

71. As regards the Commission's statement that it could not establish different amounts of scholarships because of the different levels of tuition fees, the complainant pointed out that the provisions establishing the Erasmus Mundus Programme did not prevent the Commission from determining the maximum tuition fees that could be charged by the master's courses; the Erasmus Mundus II Programme had set this ceiling at EUR 4 000 per semester.

72. The complainant took the view that the Commission's use of the adjective "diligent" in relation to applicants was superfluous and could be considered offensive.

73. As regards the Ombudsman's statement that no evidence or indications had been provided as to the debts incurred by the complainant and his fellow students, the complainant expressed his willingness to provide such indications. The complainant submitted that he had accumulated a debt amounting to EUR 30 065 over a period of 24 months. The money he had spent was used to sustain himself during the 20-month period of the EuMAS programme and also during an additional period of four months, which helped him to settle in Europe, learn the languages and to appreciate the local cultures. The complainant considered it interesting that the debts he incurred were very close to the amount available to students under several other Erasmus Mundus Programmes as a living allowance, which was EUR 15 000 per annum.

D. The Ombudsman's assessment after his friendly solution proposal

74. The Commission’s rejection of the Ombudsman’s proposal for a friendly solution seems to be primarily based on the following arguments: (i) the EuMAS 2006-2008 students should have known about the level of tuition fees even before they left their countries to study in the EU; (ii) the applicants needed to consult not just the information provided by the Commission, but also the specific master's courses websites and the EuMAS website, which clearly indicated the level of the tuition fees; (iii) no other students under the Erasmus Mundus I Programme had brought such objections to its attention; and (iv) the actual amount of the tuition fees had not come as a surprise to the Commission.

75. As regards the Commission's first argument, the complainant does not dispute that he was aware of the level of tuition fees in advance. However, it is not the level of these fees that he is complaining about. What he alleges is that, given the information provided by the Commission, he and his fellow third-country students were led to believe that the Erasmus Mundus scholarship would suffice to cover all relevant costs and allow them a decent standard of living for the duration of the master's course – even after the tuition fees had been deducted.

76. As regards the second argument put forward, the Commission argued that the decision to apply for a master's course did not depend on the relevant leaflet alone, but also on the entirety of the information available to the applicant. The Ombudsman agrees with the Commission's point of view. However, the said argument cannot call into question the position set out in the friendly solution proposal, which in effect took into account the entirety of the information that the Commission communicated to applicants.

77. The Commission also argued that the leaflet and its website advised potential applicants to consult the application procedures and admission conditions on the specific master's courses websites, where the tuition fees were clearly stated. In its view, this would have allowed any diligent applicant to calculate his or her living costs in advance. The Ombudsman agrees that the information on the level of tuition fees enabled students to calculate how much money they would have left to cover their living expenses. However, the Commission has not submitted any concrete evidence to show that this information ought to have led students to understand that the balance between their Erasmus Mundus scholarship and the tuition fees was not sufficient to allow them a decent standard of living for the duration of the master's course. It should be recalled that the Commission's website stated, among other things, that the scholarship covered "travel and living expenses and tuition in Europe for the full duration of the course". In these circumstances, the Commission cannot blame the complainant and other students in a similar position for having believed its own statements. Besides, the position adopted by the Commission in the present case is not easy to reconcile with the statement in its letter to the complainant dated 2 July 2007: "...drawing lessons from cases like yours, the Commission is now envisaging requesting all master courses to state very clearly on their websites which expenditures the tuition fee includes (and doesn't include) and the living costs of each possible study destination so that students can have pre-emptive knowledge about their financial needs."

78. The Commission put forward a third argument that the Erasmus Mundus I Programme covered around 1 400 other students, and none of these other students complained to have been misled by the information published by the Commission. It appears useful to note that the present case concerns the situation of the EuMAS 2006-2008 students, and not that of the Erasmus Mundus I Programme students in general. From the information available to the Ombudsman, it would appear that the number of EuMAS 2006-2008 students is very small (less than 30). It is true that all of the Erasmus Mundus I Programme students appear to have received the same scholarship of EUR 21 000 per year. However, the Commission has not submitted any evidence to try and show that all of these students had to pay the same tuition fees as the complainant and his fellow students. In fact, the Commission itself acknowledged that EuMAS tuition fees were among the highest for Erasmus Mundus master's courses. The absence of complaints from other students could thus only be relevant if these other students had been confronted with comparable tuition fees. However, even if that were the case, it would still be necessary to establish that these other students were affected by these tuition fees in the same way as the complainant and his fellow students. The Commission has not adduced any evidence to that effect. In any event, an absence of complaints does not necessarily mean that a certain practice is in conformity with good administrative practice.

79. As regards the fourth of the Commission's arguments, the Ombudsman considered it likely that the Commission had initially not been aware of the levels of tuition fees charged for different master's courses. The Ombudsman assumed that this could have been a logical explanation as to how the problems of the EuMAS 2006-2008 students came about. However, the Commission confirmed that it was aware of the tuition fees. The Commission was thus clearly also aware of the fact that these fees amounted to more than half of the scholarship and that the monthly amount that was left for students was quite limited. In these circumstances, the Commission's public declaration to the effect that the Erasmus Mundus I scholarship would guarantee the students a decent living standard throughout their studies would appear, in so far as the EuMAS 2006-2008 students were concerned, to have ignored economic reality. The Commission's behaviour would therefore raise even more serious concerns.

80. The Commission also put forward that it was legally prevented from granting scholarships that varied depending on the tuition fees that were to be paid by students. However, the Ombudsman did not ask the Commission retroactively to differentiate the amount of the scholarship granted to EuMAS 2006-2008 students. What he proposed was that the Commission consider making an ex-gratia payment in view of the financial difficulties that the EuMAS 2006-2008 students found themselves in, as a result of the misinformation conveyed to them by it. The Commission's argument therefore does not apply in the present case.

81. In view of the above, the Commission’s arguments do not alter the Ombudsman’s finding that the information which the Commission provided to prospective EuMAS 2006-2008 students concerning Erasmus Mundus I scholarships was not correct and reliable. This finding applies to the extent that the Commission led these students to believe that the scholarship would allow them a decent standard of living for the duration of the master's course, even after the tuition fees had been deducted.

82. This misinformation constituted an instance of maladministration. The Ombudsman therefore makes a corresponding draft recommendation below, in accordance with Article 3(6) of the Statute of the European Ombudsman.

83. In this context, the Ombudsman considers it useful to recall that, in his proposal for a friendly solution, he pointed out that the Commission would be well advised to consider the impact that this case could have for the reputation of the European Union in general. It is deeply disappointing to note that the Commission appears not to have given any consideration to this concern. The EuMAS 2006-2008 students came to Europe relying on the information published by the Commission. Instead of admitting that a mistake had occurred and trying to rectify this mistake, the Commission has chosen to continue ignoring the problem. The Commission's approach to this case begs the question whether this is really the type of "impact on the visibility and perception of the European Union around the world, as well as building a capital of goodwill among those who have participated in the programme" that the Erasmus Mundus I Programme was intended to achieve[8].

84. The Ombudsman notes the complainant suggested that he has incurred approximately EUR 15 000 of debt per year of his studies. However, no conclusive evidence has been submitted in this respect. Furthermore, it should be recalled that the complainant claimed that the Commission should fulfil its engagement to provide Erasmus Mundus students with financial security, not that it should make good concrete damage. In any event, it should also be borne in mind that the said claim does not only concern the complainant but also his fellow students. If one were to accept the complainant's argument, the damage that has or may have occurred would have to be calculated for each and every one of the students concerned. The Ombudsman considers that this would, if it were at all possible, be likely to require a disproportionate effort on the part of the Commission. Therefore, the Ombudsman continues to believe that the approach he already set out in his proposal for a friendly solution, which is based on a uniform, ex-gratia, equitable, lump sum payment to EuMAS 2006-2008 students, is the best way forward.

85. With an eye to assisting the Commission in implementing this draft recommendation, the Ombudsman considers it useful to add the following considerations. The complainant seems to agree that an amount of EUR 1 000 would have adequately covered his living expenses and those of his fellow students. In reality, these students had between EUR 400 (according to the complainant) and EUR 650 (according to the Commission). As the Ombudsman already noted, the students seem to have managed to make ends meet in one way or the other. In these circumstances, the payment to be made by the Commission does not necessarily constitute a reimbursement of costs that have arisen but were not covered by the scholarship. It is rather a recognition of the inconvenience experienced by the students concerned.

86. In light of the above considerations, the Ombudsman takes the view that an amount of EUR 1 500 would constitute an appropriate uniform, ex-gratia, equitable, lump sum payment for each of the EuMAS 2006-2008 students.

B. The draft recommendation

On the basis of his inquiries into this complaint, the Ombudsman makes the following draft recommendation to the Commission:

The Commission should make a uniform, ex-gratia, equitable, lump-sum payment to the complainant and each of his fellow EuMAS 2006-2008 students of EUR 1 500.

The Commission and the complainant will be informed of this draft recommendation. In accordance with Article 3(6) of the Statute of the European Ombudsman, the Commission shall send a detailed opinion by 31 May 2011. The detailed opinion could consist of the acceptance of the draft recommendation and a description of how it has been implemented.

 

P. Nikiforos Diamandouros

Done in Strasbourg on 9 February 2011


[1] Decision of the European Parliament of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties (94/262/ECSC, EC, Euratom), OJ 1994 L 113, p. 15.

[2] See the second quotation in paragraph 22.

[3] In respect of travel costs, the Commission stated that return tickets to Europe could be obtained at reasonable prices.

[4] The Commission pointed out that the EuMAS students had to move only once, that is, from Munich to Madrid.

[5] The Erasmus Mundus II (2009-2013) Programme Guide is available under the following link: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/erasmus_mundus/programme/programme_guide_en.php

[6] According to the Erasmus Mundus II Programme Guide, participation costs are "any compulsory administrative/operational cost related to the participation of the student in the [master course] (e.g. library, laboratory, tuition, social security and insurance costs, etc.). Any other costs that may be charged in addition (e.g. for participation in fieldwork activities), being compulsory or voluntary, must be communicated to the candidate student at application stage."

[7] The complainant presumably intended to refer to his letter dated 20 July 2007.

[8] Recital 10 of the decision establishing the Erasmus Mundus I Programme reads: "The aim of this programme is to contribute to improving the quality of higher education in Europe and at the same time to have an impact on the visibility and perception of the European Union around the world, as well as building a capital of goodwill among those who have participated in the programme." Decision 2317/2003/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a programme for the enhancement of quality in higher education and the promotion of intercultural understanding through cooperation with third countries, OJ 2003 L 345, p. 1.