Mourning Erasmus

Brexit deal leaves Britain out of the continent's flagship student exchange program. The U.K. government announced a new program to replace it, but many people are skeptical about that plan.

January 5, 2021
 
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The United Kingdom will continue to participate in the European Union’s academic research funding program, Horizon Europe, but will not participate in the continent’s student mobility program, Erasmus+, under the agreement governing the terms of Britain’s exit from the E.U.

The culmination of a 2016 referendum in favor of Britain leaving the E.U., the so-called Brexit deal also ends free movement for U.K. citizens across Europe and for European citizens who would come to the U.K. Under the new rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, U.K. citizens are no longer able to work, study or start a business in continental Europe freely and without a visa, and the same is true for Europeans coming to the U.K.

Scientists and higher education groups, who by and large were unified in their opposition to the U.K. leaving the European Union, cheered the news that Britain had entered an agreement to buy into the Horizon Europe program, which has a $95.5 billion budget over the next seven years. But the groups lamented the loss of participation in Erasmus, a more than 30-year-old exchange program that sent more than 17,000 U.K. students to European or other partner countries in 2018 and brought more than 31,000 international students to the U.K.

The continent's flagship mobility program, long seen as an important tool for promoting European integration, provided grants for more than four million individuals on international exchanges between 2014 and 2020.

The biggest component of Erasmus funds exchanges for students in higher education, but it also funds exchanges for other groups, including for higher education staff, for students in vocational training and education, and for youth.

The U.K. government recently announced a new program, known as the Turing scheme, to replace Erasmus+. The government said the 100-million-pound (about $136.6 million) program will send up to 35,000 British students to study or work overseas starting in September.

The government said the Turing scheme would target students from disadvantaged backgrounds, encompass more countries around the world and provide "greater value for money to taxpayers." But critics raised concerns about the logistics of getting a new large-scale student mobility program in place and also questioned whether the budget for the program, which works out to about £2,857, or $3,903, per student placement or exchange, will be adequate.

U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson said the country was leaving Erasmus+ because of the cost, according to Politico's European edition.

“The issue really was that the U.K. is a massive net contributor to the continent’s higher-education economy because over the last decades we had so many E.U. nationals, which has been a wonderful thing, but our arrangements mean the U.K. exchequer more or less loses out on the deal,” Johnson said during a Dec. 24 press conference. “Erasmus was also extremely expensive.”

As Politico reported, the U.K. could have negotiated continued access to the Erasmus program after exiting the E.U. for a fee to be calculated on the basis of gross domestic product. But the U.K. government wanted to pick the parts of the program it participated in to save money, and there was no precedent for that.

"The Erasmus programme is open to the participation of third countries under the conditions set out in the basic act establishing the program," the E.U. said in a FAQ about the trade agreement. "Among these, third countries that become associated to Erasmus have to participate in the programme in full, to ensure the synergies between the different areas in the programme."

"The UK requested partial participation in the programme, which is not foreseen in the basic act establishing Erasmus. The UK subsequently decided that it did not want to participate in Erasmus."

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, described the decision to end participation in Erasmus as “cultural vandalism by the U.K. government.”

“Erasmus is symbolic of the U.K. retreating from what is the European mainstream, and the Turing scheme is also symbolic,” said Paul James Cardwell, a professor of law at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, who studies E.U. law and policy and has also researched the academic benefits of study abroad.

“It’s not like the U.K. is leaving one kind of bloc and joining another,” Cardwell added. “There’s nothing so far with the Turing system apart from funding for some students. It [the government] says 35,000. I don’t know if that's going to be realistic or not, if it will actually be something that is a real replacement.”

Mike Galsworthy, founder of the group Scientists for EU, was also skeptical of the plan to start a new student exchange program.

“To actually blow this up, something that’s matured and works, in order to replace it with a future pipe dream, that is letting down our youth right now,” he said.

Universities UK, the organization representing U.K. university leaders, said in a statement that it was “disappointed” in the decision to end participation in Erasmus+. But it praised the government for committing “to a generously funded scheme despite current economic pressures.”

“The new Turing scheme is a fantastic development and will provide global opportunities for up to 35,000 UK students to study and work abroad. It is a good investment in the future of students -- not only those in universities but in schools and colleges who will also benefit,” Universities UK said.

The organization said that a priority will be working with international counterparts on funding for inbound students who will not be covered under the Turing scheme.

"Inbound exchange students contributed £440 million [about $600.9 million] to the UK economy in 2018 and there are real concerns about whether the UK will see a decrease outside of the Erasmus scheme," Universities UK said.

Some former beneficiaries of Erasmus exchanges to and from the U.K. took to social media to lament the loss of the program.

"Erasmus was a symbol of the erosion of walls, the freer movement not only of goods and services but of people and ideas," one early Erasmus participant, Julian Baggini, a writer and philosopher, wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian. "This was always what mattered most about the European project. The Britain that we know and sometimes love today did not become what it is by seeking isolation."

Kris Olds, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who writes on global higher education matters, noted that Johnson said last January that there was no threat to the U.K.'s continued participation in Erasmus.

"First, it is clear the prime minister and his party cannot be trusted regarding higher education policy matters," Olds said. "He directly lied to the U.K. Parliament about this exact issue."

More broadly, Olds said, "Withdrawal from Erasmus+ is arguably a move to engage in large-scale social engineering of a generational nature, with the Conservatives and much of Labour seeking to reduce the ‘European’ dimension of the identities of U.K. youth (who largely voted to remain). Some have argued this could even be a form of generational punishment."

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