It was apparently a last-minute decision – taken unilaterally by Boris Johnson’s government and announced on Christmas Eve. The UK is pulling out of the EU’s Erasmus programme. This is the scheme, launched in 1987, which has enabled over three million European students to spend up to a year studying or working in another EU country (and sometimes elsewhere).
The latest figures suggest that 30,000 EU students came to the UK last year thanks to Erasmus, while 18,000 UK students went to other European universities and workplaces, all with an EU grant. The scheme also subsidises staff mobility and exchanges across European universities. All west-country universities have taken part.
I spent 25 years of my time at the University of Bath developing, managing and ultimately being responsible for international student exchanges in the Schools of Management and Modern Languages. All such exchange schemes require substantial front-end investment of time in order to develop relationships between each set of partner institutions. There has to be quality assurance covering academic standards, workplace experience and student welfare before students are allowed to venture forth.
The benefits to the individual students are extraordinary. Living and working or studying in another country for between four and twelve months is for most students a life-changing experience. It makes those students compare and contrast the host culture and society with their home environment. Previous assumptions are often called into question and new ways of looking at the world are often embraced. Sometimes this leads to a wholesale change of career path.
It now looks as if nearly all the above investment, and the reciprocal relationships developed over decades, have been put in jeopardy overnight – just to satisfy Brexit ideologues in the government. As a sop, the prime minister promises a new programme, to be named after Alan Turing. We know very little about it so far, but we do know the following …
The Turing scheme will benefit disadvantaged students (as does Erasmus) – but these students will all have to be recruited, briefed and offered appropriate funding in advance, which is scarcely possible in time for next September. We still have no idea which universities will be allowed to, or will wish to, participate.
There will be no reciprocity. Turing will provide subsidised one-way traffic for UK students to go abroad. Erasmus runs on the basis of a no-fee academic exchange – extremely cost effective. Turing will require the UK government to pay student fees to overseas institutions. When foreign students come to British universities (as they do under Erasmus) they help to broaden the experience of most UK students who do not go on academic or workplace exchange. Under the Turing scheme this will not happen. It is a bad deal for the UK all round.
The range of the Turing scheme will be ‘global, world-class’ institutions apparently, but such institutions will have to be contacted, persuaded to participate, visited and negotiated with, before students can begin to be sent over to them. Visa complications will have to be sorted out as well. All this is expensive for universities and time-consuming – never mind the logistical problems with foreign travel caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Turing scheme will have funding of £100m, but we have no idea when this will kick in or what sort of time period this will cover. There are no details as yet as to what level of grant students on the new scheme can expect to receive if they sign up. That information is absolutely crucial if disadvantaged students are to be interested in going abroad.
The cancellation of Erasmus and the launch of Turing show all the signs of yet another UK government initiative that is too little and too late, undeliverable in the timescale required and blinkered by hostility to Europe. For university students seeking academic or workplace exchanges in 2021-2022 there will be no Erasmus programme and there will likely be no replacement scheme that is up and running. Given that most university courses only allow student absences from their home institution at a set point in each degree scheme, these students will be well and truly sold down the river by Boris and his Brexit agenda. Students will be poorer for it as will our higher education system.
No wonder the Scottish and Welsh governments are, apparently, in talks with the European Commission to sign up to Erasmus again. Interestingly the Irish government has also offered to extend the coverage of its Erasmus programme to Northern Ireland. Clearly some people in Dublin understand the meaning of ‘soft power’ – a concept that the current UK Cabinet seems unable to grasp!