With Brexit on the horizon, what does this mean for the future of the Erasmus programme?
It’s that time of year again; when we wistfully wave goodbye to a few UCL friends as they begin their year abroad in another country, whilst excitedly awaiting the return of those who have spent the last year having the adventure of a lifetime. Will these experiences be a defining moment of our younger siblings’ return to university each year? With Brexit around the corner, it appears the answer could be no.
The Erasmus Programme (EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), named after the infamous Renaissance philosopher, was founded in 1987 to facilitate student exchange within the European Union (EU).With 4,000 students involved in the programme at any one time, it gives a significant portion of UK students the chance to study somewhere other than their home institution for a year, with a small monthly grant. In return, we benefit from a host of EU students coming to the UK to study. Students may choose to study or work, gaining the unique opportunity to live and socialise in a foreign country.
Initially, the scheme focused on language students and the benefits that a year abroad would have on their fluency. However, over the years UCL has enabled students from all faculties to take up this opportunity. This can only be indicative of just how important these Erasmus years now mean for students, as both a vital cultural exchange and a unique experience of another way of life. A unique experience that is now under threat from the isolationist ideals of Brexit. Recently, Erasmus+ was launched, the 14.7 billion amalgamated programme for education, training, youth and sport, further highlighting how people are increasingly valuing student exchanges as an important part of university life. It is hard to imagine how universities in the UK will cope if they are eliminated from the Erasmus+ programme due to Brexit.
The first thing mentioned in the ‘Welcome Talk 2016’ for UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS) after the referendum vote, was that language students needn’t worry about Brexit affecting their compulsory Year Abroad: negotiations wouldn’t have concluded by the time third year came around. Their prediction was correct, and now the third ‘post-Brexit’ Year Abroad cohort are currently jetting off to their Erasmus+ locations, seemingly undeterred by the threat of Brexit. Having said that, we can’t be sure that future SELCS students will get a similarly bold welcome into the faculty, as UCL cannot be so sure what the next few years will hold in terms of their relationship with the Erasmus+ programme.
In 2016, when the immense gravity of the referendum result began to sink in for UK universities, there was general concern, reported in both the Independent and the Guardian, that British students would immediately be excluded from the Erasmus+ scheme. It was, as Erasmus’ UK director, Ruth Sinclair-Jones, stated “a sad moment of uncertainty” – an uncertainty that persistently lingers on, as each cohort of students deliberates whether they will be the final one to benefit from Erasmus+.
The British Council also issued a statement explaining that the UK’s involvement in Erasmus+ “will depend on the exit negotiations”, which only allows this uncertainty to loom on.Their survey confirmed the importance of Erasmus+ to young people, as 74% of respondents aged 18-24 wanted to see international exchange schemes, such as Erasmus+, maintained post- Brexit. Given its obviously vital role in the university experience, especially for language students for whom time in a foreign country to practice their classroom vocabulary is paramount to their learning, we are left to wonder where Erasmus+ stands in the UK Government’s deliberations over Britain’s eventual exit from the EU.
Theresa May echoed the statement published in the joint progress report during Phase 1 of negotiations, confirming that the UK will continue to take part in the Erasmus+ student exchange programme until at least the end of 2020. Initially, in August 2016, the Government announced its promise to underwrite the payment of awards for UK applicants for successful bids to EU funding, encouraging businesses and universities to continue applications for EU funds. In extension, the Government is now discussing the measures required to stay true to their word, and ensure that UK organisations can participate in Erasmus+ until the end of 2020.
In August, as the (joint) hottest UK summer on record came to a close, and we began preparations for the third academic year under Brexit negotiations, Erasmus+ published their document “Erasmus+ in the UK if there’s no Brexit deal.” This explicitly detailed that the October 2018 call for bids will take place as usual, regardless of UK-EU negotiations. Furthermore, they stated that the Government has welcomed their proposal for the 2021-2027 successor scheme to Erasmus+, and will begin discussing it while the UK remains part of the EU.
However, it is important to note that if Britain does lose its place in the Erasmus+ scheme, it may be worth following other countries in finding alternate ways to provide a similar opportunity. Norway, for example, is not a member of the EU, yet maintains freedom of movement and thus continues to be a part of the Erasmus+ programme. However, given that the Leave campaign capitalised on the closing of borders to avoid migration, it is unlikely that the UK will accept such an open arrangement.
Furthermore, Switzerland founded the Swiss European Mobility Programme, making agreements with individual universities to facilitate a student exchange mirroring Erasmus+, which has proved an effective substitute for the original framework. The difficulty is that without funding from Brussels, the programme relies heavily on Government resources and thus comes at a very high financial cost to incoming students. Therefore, Erasmus+ is undoubtedly the best option for students at UK universities.
UCL has been decidedly vocal about its hopes for the Erasmus+ scheme in the face of Brexit, as last year approximately 350 UCL students took part in the Erasmus+ scheme, benefitting them both academically and personally, in wider preparation for their future lives. Our President and Provost, Michael Arthur, spoke to the Guardian back in June 2016 about his concern regarding Brexit’s effect on Erasmus+: “Does it look a little bit like England is closed for business and we are not interested in the rest of the world?”.
Unfortunately, it seems he is right about the image that Britain (rather than England) presents to the rest of Europe: that we don’t want to be involved anymore. But a resounding chorus of students in UK universities would beg to differ. The Brexit vote may want us to turn our back on such invaluable cultural exchanges asErasmus+, but we are not ready to give them up just yet.
This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine.