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So long, farewell: the UK’s decision to leave Erasmus

Lucy Thynne explores why the UK’s decision to leave Erasmus is a betrayal of the younger generation.

On Christmas Eve of 2020, it was decided that students and young people from Britain will no longer take part in the Europe-wide Erasmus exchange programme, following the UK’s departure from the European Union.  It’s a sad loss, but let’s face it, an expected one. The replacement: the Turing scheme, ostentatiously unveiled as an opportunity whereby UK students can have their ‘pick of the world’, and travel to countries beyond Europe.

The main reason cited for leaving the scheme is financial. The Erasmus Programme, which was established in 1987 and named after the Dutch humanist philosopher, was deemed ‘too expensive’ by Boris Johnson in negotiation talks prior to the new year. The Turing scheme, in the words of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, will instead ‘deliver real value for money’ and focus on being ‘truly international.’

While Erasmus membership was certainly costly, reports have shown that leaving the partnership deal will blow a hole in the UK economy. ‘Inbound exchange students contributed £440m to the UK in 2018,’ pointed out Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International. ‘There are real concerns as to how the UK will replace that.’ The £100m that has been flung at the Turing scheme may sound impressive, but by comparison, is a paltry investment in young people’s futures. Nor does it solve the problem of sponsoring travel far beyond Europe, when flights have always been covered by students themselves. How will young people afford the fee to fly to Australia, for example, compared to the more manageable cost to travel to Rotterdam? Like a parent disguising a plate of vegetables as a dessert, Johnson desperately promises, in true Trumpian fashion, a ‘bigger and better’ programme. See previous claims on a ‘world-beating’ track and trace scheme, if you need reminding of how boasts work out in this government. 

The greatest loss, however, has never been concerned with money. 17,000 British young people will be deprived of valuable work and life experience, according to a group of education and business leaders. Living abroad, working in a new environment, appreciating the language and culture of a different country – each of these are invaluable in their own right. How lucky we were to have access to a programme that brought all of these together, opportunities otherwise out of reach to low-income students. Bursaries from Erasmus made such experiences possible: small worlds made big; confidence made even bigger.

No doubt will Erasmus’ opponents defend the decision by framing it as a ‘gap yah’ holiday for the privileged few. Really, however, it has opened doors for those who would never be able to open them. A report published last year found that BAME students who studied abroad were 17% more likely to be in graduate jobs six months after graduation. For a portion of the population who were never able to vote on this decision to leave Erasmus, let alone in the EU referendum itself, the outcome is more than frustrating. And it comes a whole three years after Michael Gove’s declaration that May’s Brexit deal would see ‘the final whistle blown, and the prime minister having won.’ Gove would be proven incorrect timewise, but the analogy still speaks volumes – young people have been caught amid this public-school boy football match in which the main players seem to only be scoring own goals.

I never got to benefit from the Erasmus programme, but the effect of living abroad as a young person is not lost on me. Taking French and Spanish for A level, I spent a week in Madrid and Montpellier to attend language schools. It was my first time away from home and navigating a foreign city was hard, but I will treasure the memories and friendships made there all my life. It was a gift. Students there, from across Europe, were inquisitive.

Brexit was often brought up in our first conversations. ‘But none of us want to lose you, either,’ a friend from Belgium pointed out, most likely after I’d lamented about our own losses. At first, it felt like a curiously undeserved kindness, but in retrospect it suggests more plainly what was undeserved for them – a ‘referendum’ that ultimately gave no choice to a union of people just as implicated in the decision. A generation of those students I met, who also would want to visit a country and have an equally formative experience: to study in London, Liverpool; to enjoy the quirks and delights of a country that I have long since forgotten. None of us want to lose you either.  It’s a comment that has stayed with me, but feels particularly resonant now that those friends will struggle to find funded places at UK universities. Up our fences go, as if our nation could not already be more insular.

Perhaps hypocrisy is only to be expected here, but it’s still difficult not to feel hard done by. The prime minister told MPs in January that there was ‘no threat to the Erasmus scheme and we will continue to participate in it.’ It hasn’t taken long – at all – for people to show their anger over this broken promise. SNP MP Douglas Chapman accused the prime minister of ‘lies and bluster’, following on the words of his party’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who said that such a decision would be ‘cultural vandalism.’ Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said that pulling out of the scheme was ‘needless.’ Needless for everyone but the self-serving, of course. Johnson himself is notably fluent in Italian and French. The latter he most likely picked up during his stint as the Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, where he was able to work abroad as a young journalist (and spread anti-EU stories, even then). The irony is clear enough to anyone.

It is tricky to express grief over something you’ve never had, especially when the Erasmus Programme is small fry in comparison to trade deals and fishing agreements. But make no mistake in dismissing this decision, which seems to be the greatest revenge of the Tories yet: the blinding of future generations to the beauty and life of European cities abroad.

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