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An under-the-radar by-product of Brexit has been the withdrawal from Erasmus+, the EU’s student exchange programme. The programme, which observes the scholarship of Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, provided over €140 million of education grants to the UK, with 54,000 participants in the UK in 2019. The trade agreement between the EU and UK, finalised at the start of the year, will see UK replace Erasmus+ with their own ‘Turing Scheme’.
An Erasmus exchange on a graduate’s CV has proven to improve employment prospects drastically. The programme produces open-minded students whose experiences in unusual environments has bolstered their social skills and career confidence. The Russell Group suggests that Erasmus participants actually perform better academically than their peers, based on the proportions of students achieving first-class honours.
The UK is one of the top providers of higher education in the world, and as such, a popular destination for Erasmus exchanges and research from Universities UK estimates that participation in the Erasmus program can bring profits of £240 million to Britain every year. The financial value of the program will be sorely missed by an ailing higher education sector that has struggled to cope with the pandemic. The loss of international students, rebate on unused accommodation and increased administration costs have left universities in desperate need of income.
Moreover, as one of the most coveted destinations, the UK acquired a degree of soft power from their involvement. Educating foreign students in the UK means that students export the perspectives that are taught in British universities back to their home country. Britain’s position as a global leader is embedded by this process as the culture and views on society and politics are transmitted around the globe. This transmission may seem like an ominous prospect but in a globalised world with so many competing views on how society and politics should be structured, the countries that have a stake in international education and research wield great power. Our domestic socio-political discourse is also enhanced with the import of norms and ideas from other participant countries.
The prime minister commented on the departure from Erasmus+ in a press conference in December, stating that the UK, as a “massive net contributor” to the program, could be better served by an alternative. Failure to reconcile a post-Brexit agreement with Erasmus has been because of the government’s perception that it wasn’t a reciprocal relationship. The number of Erasmus participants studying in the UK is roughly twice the number of British students who use the program.
MP David Johnson observes that “the outrage is largely coming from a collection of the firmly middle class and affluent anti-Brexit folk”, which is indicative of Erasmus' major shortcoming. The programme has been a staple of middle-class university experience since the UK joined in 1987, and has left behind the lower income students at home and abroad. In 2006, studies estimated that of Erasmus+ exchange participants, only 14% had a lower than average household income. Gaps in social mobility makes Erasmus less accessible to financially disadvantaged students. There were grants in place to offset a portion of the costs, but a year abroad remained unfeasible to many.
The government should learn from our history with Erasmus when constructing its successor, the Turing Scheme. The Enigma-cracking scientist Alan Turing is the perfect namesake for an education scheme that will reinvent our relationship with higher education institutions from around the world, set to commence in September 2021. The Department of Education has promised the opportunity for 35,000 students to go on exchanges and placements around the world, backed by £100 million in funding.
The new scheme has pledged to improve on Erasmus’ inclusivity record, ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t left out. Provisions for social mobility must be included, while maintaining a high quality exchange that will improve a graduate’s employment prospects.
This can be a great opportunity for the government to foster an intellectual association with some of the emerging global powers, outside of the EU. The sharing of knowledge and research with developing countries will help the UK understand developmental processes better and provide the basis of a mutually beneficial cooperation that could then spill over into trade and diplomatic relations.
The departure from Erasmus is the most recent episode of Brexit straining the relationship between the devolved nations. This has exacerbated the divisions between Westminster and Scotland, and Scotland are searching for ways to remain part of the Erasmus program. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has accused the government of committing “cultural vandalism” by aborting Erasmus+. The UK government ruled out the possibility of Scotland rejoining Erasmus. Northern Ireland have been allowed to remain a part of the program via partnerships with universities in Ireland. The gesture bodes well for relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
It’s a shame to no longer be a part of Erasmus+, but the Turing Scheme can learn from the shortcomings of the EU programme and suit Britain better, hopefully improving Britain's diplomatic influence abroad too. If an overseas exchange sounds like something you would be interested in, make sure to track developments on the Turning Scheme, which starts in September 2021.