Ditching the Erasmus Scheme in Britain ruined opportunities for UK and EU students; three years on, the Young European Movement want to restore international education.
On December 5, 2023, around the vast roundtable in the Select Committee Room of The House of Commons, a panel of political heavyweights from across the continent assembled in an event hosted by the Young European Movement (YEM) to discuss what must be done to reverse the damage made by the UK government’s withdrawal from the Erasmus scheme.
The decision to leave came as part of the Brexit deal made by the UK government in 2020 and, in 2021 when the UK left the EU and Brexit began, dire consequences for international study ensued.
The scheme, which was estimated to have generated £243 million for the UK economy in 2020, offers prospective students from its 33 participating member states access to international education, training and sport — with tuition fees from host universities paid for. Erasmus also offers students financial aid for living costs as well as student visas for the duration of their international study.
An alternative scheme developed by the UK government, the Turing Scheme, replaced Erasmus. However, it falls well short of its predecessor; dropping student visas, withdrawing tuition payments and cutting back on living payments for both UK students looking to study internationally and vice-versa.
Under the new scheme, the number of EU students enrolling to study in the UK has halved, with the most severe drop being seen amongst undergraduates, whose rates of enrolment have decreased by two thirds.
This drastic drop brings the prospect of financial cuts for many of Britain’s Higher Educations Institutions as well as negative implications for our nation’s levels of diversity and interconnectedness.
In accordance with the gravity of the topic, Chair of the meeting and President of the Young European Movement, Klajdi Selimi, was joined by a panel of four guest speakers.
On the far left on the panel was Maurizio Cuttin, UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum and Advisor to the rapporteur of the European Economic & Social Committee’s EU-UK.
Next to Cuttin sat Nathalie Loiseau MEP — Chair of the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly and former Minister for Europe under President Emmaneul Macron. Next was Alyn Smith MP — SNP Spokesperson for Europe and EU Accession, and former MEP, followed by Colm Markey MEP, representing the Midlands North West.
After introducing the panel, Selimi prefaced the discussion with a recognition of the dedicated work that YEM and it’s affiliates had put towards their campaign: Embrace Erasmus.
“I am delighted to be chairing this discussion that comes as a result of seven years of collective frustration and hard work.”
In July of 2016, the Brexit minister, David Davis declined to guarantee that the UK would remain a member of the programme post-Brexit despite foreign officials confirming an agreement for the UK to remain could be made.
This lead many politicians and ambassadors to advise the UK to pursue a deal with the EU to maintain their membership in the Erasmus scheme.
Ruth Sinclair-Jones, Director of the Erasmus+ UK National Agency, was one advisor, stating in 2017: “the number one priority should be to try to make sure that the UK can stay fully participating in Erasmus+, because of the benefits to everyone, not just the UK.”
Against the counsel given by many, the UK government continued to dismiss the importance of preserving Britain’s place in Erasmus.
Selimi continued, bringing the assembly up to the present day – “In this room, we are taking the first tangible steps towards reclaiming lost opportunities and rebuilding future ones, we represent the millions of young people who have been eagerly waiting for this moment and this conversation.”
“I want to first highlight that, although Brexit has been established, it does not mean that Britain cannot be part of Erasmus. From the beginning, the government had the option to remain in the scheme, and — even now — the EU assure us that we can return. I am going to turn now to Natalie Loiseau MEP who is Chair of the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly as I think she is the most qualified here to talk on how this situation has been handled.”
“One of the reasons that Brexit is such a catastrophe is that you have had your future stolen and also your present,” said Natalie Loiseau.
Loiseau’s branding of Brexit as a “catastrophe” is a sentiment that comes as no surprise. Whilst occupying the position of French Minister for European Affairs between 2017 and 2019, Loiseau was outspoken on her disapproval of Brexit. In 2019, she told French news outlet, France24: “we are in the middle of Brexit madness and it is extremely sad.”
She continued, “youth mobility has never been so difficult as it is today. The British authorities have not only chosen Brexit, but they have chosen a type of Brexit that goes against the freedom of movement for people. They could’ve chosen to remain in Erasmus but they did not.”
Alyn Smith of the SNP expressed solidarity with Loiseau’s views: “I couldn’t agree more. Brexit has been a crime against your generation.”
The former MEP represented Scotland in the EU from 2004 to 2019, going viral in 2016 for his speech at the emergency debate at the European Parliament, a meeting that took place in response to the results of the 2016 referendum.
His passionate speech was most famously quoted: “Scotland did not let you down. Please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down now!”
Six years on, Alyn Smith sat at the panel having been let down by the Brexit that had followed; nonetheless, his passion remained.
Smith addressed the young people present with urgency, saying “never underestimate your activism. Brexit is not a done deal, things can change. The fact that the UK opted into Horizon Europe shows that this is the case.
“Similarly to the Erasmus scheme, Horizon Europe is an EU lead initiative that provides funding. The initiative differs in that it funds scientific researchers rather than students.
Post-Brexit, disagreements over the protocol for Northern Ireland caused the UK to be excluded from the scheme in 2021, however, negotiations lead to the UK re-joining the scheme in September 2023.
Smith continued: “We should not be setting artificial boundaries against welcoming people from different countries. Opting the UK back in to Erasmus is a possibility which I want to see happen.”
Last to comment on the impact of Brexit on the UK’s withdrawal from Erasmus was Maurizio Cuttin, UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum and Advisor to the rapporteur of the European Economic & Social Committee’s EU-UK.
“Erasmus is not a remain or leave issue, it is a common sense issue. It’s about what it provides. The experience can be extremely influential in shaping young people’s minds and, without it, many opportunities are being diminished. 40% of organisations in our national youth council used to come from Erasmus, by breaking ties with the scheme, we are risking the interconnectedness and diversity of future generations.”
The panel then invited attendees to ask questions, with one woman posing a question that concerned the elephant in the room:
“The Turing Scheme that was developed by the government as a replacement for Erasmus has failed UK and EU students, with the scheme’s funding set to dry up by 2025, how do we advocate for politicians to rejoin the UK into the Erasmus Scheme before funding dries up?”
Alyn Smith was first to comment on the scheme that, in 2021, he branded as “inferior” to Erasmus and called for the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to “apologise” for.
Smith prefaced his answer by confessing, “I was taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, that’s why I haven’t mentioned Turing.”
“From the beginning, it was clear that the Turing scheme, with its dire lack of substance and funding, was a lacklustre attempt at replacing Erasmus that would eventually fail. The number of Turing students enrolling this year is down 81% which reflects the massive issues of the scheme.”
Despite his complete disbelief in the viability of Turing, the Scottish minister maintained hope that the current arrangement for international education could change.
“Young people, contact your MPs and express that you want to see Erasmus return. The MPs will listen to what the most engaged groups want as it comes closer to the general election.”
Maurizio Cuttin had mixed views on the scheme, recognising that “the scheme is not all bad, it has opened new gateways for young people looking to study outside of Europe, with opportunities in China and America being created.”
“The main issue I have with the scheme, apart from its lack of funding, is that it focuses wholly on students. Where Erasmus enabled skill-based learning, Turing only offers opportunities at universities which really restricts young people.”
Question answered, The chair of the meeting asked: “what concrete steps can we take to reinstate Erasmus?”
Cuttin answered: “there are active stakeholders working to get this off of the ground, as well as institutional players. The European Economic and Social Committee are working on a report on UK and EU youth engagement. This report aims to outline the way forward.”
“In addition to this, we need to have consultations across the UK to discuss the future. Difficult conversations need to be had; withdrawing from Erasmus has had a massive blow on soft power, how can we reverse the financial and cultural loss that leaving the scheme has caused?”
Klajdi Selimi assured the assembly that YEM would continue to fight this battle at the European Embassy on the 26th of January, where discussions as to how the prospect of the UK rejoining Erasmus could be realised. He then implored the assembly to sign YEMs petition to call on the government to open negotiations to rejoin Erasmus before declaring the meeting over.
As the panel dispersed, I sought out Klajdi Selimi, who was happy to answer more questions: “Would returning to Erasmus as it operated pre-Brexit be an ideal outcome or would merging the Erasmus and Turing schemes be a route that should be pursued to maintain global opportunities?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t want to rule out either option,” said Selimi, “I think there is a world where we could preserve the opportunities that are provided by both schemes.”
“In recent years, the Erasmus Scheme has opened their doors to the world under the new Erasmus+ programme. Non-member states such as the US and Canada are now able to offer opportunities through the new initiative. Going forward, we can expect more countries to participate in these new kinds of arrangements.”
The European Commission website gives more information as to how these new arrangements work. Under the new Erasmus+ initiative, the European Commission states that third-party countries that are not associated to the programme can “take part in certain Actions of the Programme, subject to specific criteria or conditions.”
Financial support is available for students partaking in opportunities based in third-party countries that are not associated to Erasmus.
The new Erasmus+ scheme maintains it’s standards for participant well-being across third-party, non-associated opportunities with the European Commission declaring that “applications have to be in line with the overall EU values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities as foreseen in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union.”
For the full list of countries offering opportunities through Erasmus, click here. To find out more about what YEM are doing to rejoin the UK to the scheme, visit their website here. To sign the petition to call for the government to enter negotiations to rejoin Erasmus, click here.
Featured image by Ben White via Unsplash.