Erasmus Could Have Stopped Brexit

In the Erasmus Impact Study, 88% of the UK (!) Erasmus people feel very European and 84% have a positive attitude towards Europe compared to 62% of the non-mobile UK students.

November 27, 2016

We here in continental Europe are constantly discussing the Brexit these days, trying to make sense of it and basically figuring out how it could have happened. I myself, having studied at two British universities and feeling strangely attached to this island, am particularly flabbergasted: not so much THAT the majority voted for “leave” but that it maybe could have been avoided.

My, slightly provocative, argument is: Erasmus [European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students] could have stopped the Brexit. I juggled a little bit with various figures which each separately do not seem to connect much but which if all coming together make quite a story.

Firstly, Britain has a share of people with a university degree of 40.2% (the most optimistic figure I could find; there is debate whether it is not even below 30% but let us be a bit optimistic here). That is important, because according to all publicly available statistics regarding the Brexit I saw, a higher education degree closely correlates with a “remain” vote. Among this part of the population, 220,000 - according to Universities UK – made an Erasmus experience once in their life (as a student or staff member). It is likely that most are still alive because they belong to the youngest quartiles of the population, even the comparatively smaller number of pioneers being now merely in their late 40s, early 50s.This translates into 0.66% of the voting population of 33,551,983.  

Now the interesting numbers come into play. Firstly, ESN (the Erasmus Student Network) found out –in their European Voting Assessment (EVA)- that 81% of Erasmus students were voting in the 2014 EU elections compared to a meagre 30% among all people. Let’s say, Erasmus people are nearly three times more inclined to vote than others. Given that we had a 72% participation in the Brexit over all, we do not exaggerate if we assume that practically 100% of the Erasmus people have voted, give or take a gnat’s whisker.

In the Erasmus Impact Study, we found out that 88% of the UK (!) Erasmus people feel very European and 84% have a positive attitude towards Europe compared to 62% of the non-mobile UK students. This is highly relevant because if people with a university degree are already tending towards a “remain” vote, this confirms our assumption that Erasmus alumni most likely all voted for “remain”. So the statistically 0.66% of the voting population with an Erasmus experience most probably have voted to „remain“. This is 220,000 votes or approximately 17% of the difference between the „remain“ and the „leave“ votes (16,141,241 to 17,410,742). However, in order to turn the scales, you only need 50%+1 of that, in other words 634,752 votes. Ok, that would be an extremely slim margin of 2 votes but for the sake of it...

Lets now bring the things together: we have practically all Erasmus alumni being active voters, practically all of them being willing to vote for Europe. It is just that they are such a tiny margin of the voting population (0.66). But here it comes: ONLY in the UK! The current 2% share of Erasmus alumni among university graduates in the UK (Erasmus Facts, Figures and Trends, p.35), is not THAT much higher than the current share in the population of 0.66% because university graduates are only making up less than half of the population as indicated above. More importantly, this share is less than half of the European average of 4.88%! So now let us for a minute assume that the UK had managed nothing more dramatic than simply being average in Erasmus, we would have had a 4.88% share in the graduate population or 1.96% in the entire population (because of the 40% in the population with a university degree), ignoring some differences in shares over time. Then this share of 1.96 would have translated into 658,209 votes instead of 220,000 or 438,209 more votes. Not entirely closing the gap. Still 196,542 too many for the expensive Brexit. So Britain would have had to be a bit more ambitious than the average. With a share of Erasmus among graduates of slightly more than 6%, the UK might have had just enough people to tip the scales in favour of “remain”. Of course, the 40.2% share of people with an academic degree is highly biased by age. The younger, the higher the share.

Lessons learned? Firstly, having less than 1% of the population been given the opportunity of Erasmus is not only a bit embarrassing but also unwise. Secondly, it probably pays off if you invest over a long time into the international education and experiences people make. As the Erasmus Study showed, it creates people who are more critical, more open to new challenges, less afraid of new developments, and quite possibly less likely to make gut decisions of such scope as the Brexit the consequences of which will probably be rather unpleasant for the UK in general and particularly those who voted for it. Erasmus is of course not the only way of doing it but especially regarding Europe and the European Union the by far most relevant one. So UK: get your people on planes and trains and ships and let them experience “the other”. It will help in the long run, particularly if you should ever again plan such referenda.




Uwe Brandenburg is Managing Partner at CHE Consult and heads large-scale projects such as the Erasmus Impact Study. He did his PhD in Globalisation Studies at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Bristol








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