Is this really the end of the Erasmus Programme in the United Kingdom?

By Gianluca Michieletto

It has been almost five years since my first taste of Erasmus experience in Brighton, United Kingdom. It was a crisp mid-September morning when I flew from “my” Venice to London Gatwick with one of the many flights that connect the two European cities. I was very excited and scared at the same time, trying to imagine how my life would change from that point on. The year in Brighton did not represent my first study-abroad experience, since I had already enjoyed several short language courses in Northern Ireland and England. However, this represented the first long-term experience away from my family and my country, and, for an average Italian youngster, it is never easy to leave your “mamma” and move abroad (I am sure that my Italian fellow students would agree with me on this). Yet, I could have never imagined that Erasmus changed myself and my life so much in such a positive way.

Even though it was only five years ago (2015), things have drastically changed: I was a degreeless 18-year-old boy, my English and life skills were the opposite of flawless, and Brexit had not happened yet. 

On January 9th, 2020, British MPs voted against the possibility of the United Kingdom to continue benefiting a full membership of the Erasmus programme after Brexit (344 to 254 votes). Proposed by the opposition, the “New Clause 10” would have in fact assured the participation of the United Kingdom also for the cycle 2021-2027.

Even though the government has denied the possibility to fully abandon the programme, the decision represents a crystal-clear stance against the EU. As reported by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in fact, different conservative MPs have argued that the decision was taken in order “not to have their hands tied in the next negotiates with the EU”.[1] For the moment, the government and the European Union claimed that funds for the upcoming year are secured and will be honoured, as well as the two-year scholarships. After the transition period, however, it is still not clear what is going to happen.

Yet, the United Kingdom would not represent the first country outside the Union to benefit of the Erasmus programme, since countries like Norway, Turkey and Iceland are called “programme members”’ and fully participate in the programme.[2] It must be mentioned, however, that the new British government’s plan aims at cutting all the old relationships with the EU, trying to maintain only economic ties. This currently leaves the UK with only one option: leaving the Erasmus+ Programme. Moreover, as the BBC reported, even though the United Kingdom wanted to renegotiate the terms and re-enter the Erasmus programme, it would not happen until the beginning of the next cycle,[3] meaning 2027.

Thus, there is a not-so-remote possibility that British universities would not benefit from the programme for almost a decade, consequently denying several thousands of students the possibility to enjoy this huge opportunity. At the same time, also students from other EU member states would have more difficulties applying to British universities compared to their previous “colleagues”, since the Prime Minister Boris Johnson will probably not be soft on immigration policies. Moreover, in the case of a “no-deal”, British universities would lose their appeal in the European university market, since European students would be forced to pay higher tuition fees. Indeed, the current agreement between the EU and Westminster “safeguards” member states’ students with a privileged status, thus paying the same tuition fees as British citizens.

On this line, at the beginning of 2019, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) claimed that EU students have been extremely important in British universities, accounting 5% and 8% respectively at the undergraduate and postgraduate level in 2017.[4] In the same year, moreover, it must be argued that 16.561 UK students enjoyed their semester or year abroad through Erasmus funds, while 31.727 students from other European countries studied in British universities.[5] Since then, the number of incoming and outgoing students have continuously increased.

The decision of the United Kingdom of not renewing the Erasmus+ agreements would deprive students of the possibility to live in another country, to integrate in another culture, to learn a new language, as well as meeting new people and experiencing unforgettable adventures. As the majority of Erasmus students argue, in fact, the Erasmus year represents the best year of their lives and a non-renewal would symbolize only a theft to future generations. Once again, as it occurred in the Brexit election, it is older generations, who never experienced such an opportunity, to decide for our (I also include myself) future.[6]

As already mentioned in the introduction, I consider my Erasmus year in Brighton one of the most important experiences of my life, since it somehow matured me and shaped who I am today. Erasmus is in fact not only responsible for the development of peculiar abilities needed in the university and work environment, but it is essential in the growth of personal skills and values. Indeed, what I did not tell you in the beginning is that the Erasmus experience enlightened my path of life. Some people could argue that it represents a stupid and naive sentence to say, but I am who I am today thanks to Erasmus and all its related experiences.

After my year abroad, in fact, my unconditional support for the European Union, its values and its possibilities, made me understand what I wanted to do after finishing my bachelor’s degree. In 2018, I was lucky enough to enrol in the Euroculture Programme, an Erasmus Mundus Master which focuses on European politics, culture and history. For those who may not know, Erasmus Mundus Masters are EU funded programmes, which give students the possibility to earn a double degree by studying in different countries. As for myself, I studied in Göttingen (Germany), Bilbao (Spain) and Indianapolis (USA).

After explaining my story and my points of view, I feel in the position to state that a possible agreement of the UK to leave the Erasmus Programme could only be considered catastrophic. Catastrophic, not as much for the United Kingdom and the European Union as political entities, but to their future students, who could not benefit from similar opportunities. However, while member states’ future students would continue to benefit from the programme by choosing other university destinations, British students would have fewer opportunities to study abroad, thus being sealed inside their own bubble.

Picture: Dunk, Banksy does Brexit (detail), Flickr

Sources:

Statista Research Department, “Brexit votes in the United Kingdom by age”, Statista, August 9, 2019. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/520954/brexit-votes-by-age/

Bieber, Hannah. “Brexit and the generation that was robbed”, The Euroculturer, October 13, 2019. Available at: https://euroculturer.eu/2019/10/13/brexit-and-the-generation-that-was-robbed/

Cosslett, Rhiannon Lucy. “Thanks to Erasmus programme, my small world grew big”, The Guardian, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/09/erasmus-programme-year-studying-europe

Adams, Richard. “UK ‘committed’ to maintaining Erasmus+ exchange scheme”, The Guardian, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/09/uk-committed-to-maintaining-erasmus-exchange-scheme

Tommasetta, Lara.”Brexit, il Regno Unito vota per abbandonare il programma Erasmus. Ma è davvero un addio?”, TPI News, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.tpi.it/esteri/brexit-regno-unito-addio-erasmus-20200109525875/

Guerrera, Antonello. “Brexit, Londra non conferma l’Erasmus: Eventuale accordo andrà rinegoziato”, La Repubblica, 9th January 2020. Available at: https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/01/09/news/brexit_il_regno_unito_dice_addio_all_erasmus-245321403/

Reality Check Team, “Erasmus: What could happen to scheme after Brexit”, BBC News, 9th January 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-47293927

To have more information, look also at: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/about/brexit_en

[1] Antonello Guerrera, “Brexit, Londra non conferma l’Erasmus: Eventuale accordo andrà rinegoziato”, La Repubblica, January 9,2020

[2] Reality Check Team, “Erasmus: What could happen to scheme after Brexit”, BBC News, January 9, 2020

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hannah Bieber, “Brexit and the generation that was robbed”, The Euroculturer, October 13, 2019

[5] Ibid.

[6] Statista Research Department, “Brexit votes in the United Kingdom by age”, Statista, August 9, 2019

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