The relief that accompanied the announcement of a Brexit ‘deal’ between the EU and the UK on Christmas Eve was tempered by the news that the UK would no longer participate in Erasmus+.
Instead, the UK government announced that it was creating a scheme, named after the scientist Alan Turing, to replace Erasmus with a ‘global’ scheme for 2021.
The decision to pull out of Erasmus is a representation of Brexit itself. First, the promises: the Prime Minister assured the House of Commons in January 2020 that the UK’s Erasmus participation was ‘safe’ and accused Douglas Chapman MP of ‘talking out of the back of his neck’ for suggesting otherwise.
Although universities and others involved in Erasmus knew a ‘no deal’ end of the transition would endanger participation, the popularity of Erasmus was assumed to be one of the aspects that would be protected by a deal.
Second, the rapid change in that position, with no notice or consultation. The announcement, on 24 December – when universities and colleges were closed until the New Year – led to a flurry of trying to work out what it means.
Worried students who were due to study abroad in 2021 frantically started emailing. The announcement that a new scheme was being developed gave the impression of careful planning - but few had heard very much beyond vague plans to encourage more students to study ‘globally’ since the EU referendum.
“A scheme that only funds outgoing students, with a harsh and costly visa system for incoming students, is hardly going to help with the conclusion of exchange agreements with developing countries"
Third, Erasmus was shifted front and centre of the UK’s Brexit culture war. ‘Remainers’ decried the decision as both short-sighted and indicative of the UK’s desire to cut all links with the EU, even to the detriment of young people who benefitted from this popular scheme.
‘Leavers’ retorted that Erasmus was used by only a small fraction of the student or working population, and that this outrage represented a middle-class obsession from those who refuse to see any benefit or opportunities in Brexit.
These are over-simplified positions, but only just. The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, criticised proponents for being too nostalgic for a Europe-focussed scheme because ‘it is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in’.
Fourth, the government scrambled to provide justifications for its decision. The decision to pull out was due to the high cost of participation for the UK as a non-EU Member State, and the unwillingness of the European Commission to allow the UK to ‘cherry pick’ participation in some aspects of the scheme.
The replacement Turing Scheme, with a budget of £100m, would provide funding for 35,000 outgoing (but not incoming) students and therefore be cheaper to the UK taxpayer.
Numerous experts questioned how this figure was arrived at, and what it covers, but details are not yet available - even though it is supposed to be sending its first students in a few months. Once again, experts have been left out of the decision-making loop.
Fifth, the justifications quickly shifted to the perceived ‘failings’ of Erasmus. True, the UK has had lower participation rates than France, Spain or Germany, but the numbers have been consistently rising.
The UK has not made the most of the opportunities in Erasmus or ensured awareness of the scheme to potential participations. But neither of these is the fault of Erasmus itself - which suggests that any replacement will suffer the same fate.
“To claim that Brexit allows the UK to unilaterally replace it [Erasmus] in a matter of months with a global scheme is not ambitious; it is rash”
As the most popular destination for Erasmus, the UK benefitted economically from incoming students, with these students leaving with (mostly) a positive image of the UK and its societies, and the excellence of the higher education system.
Soft power is difficult to put a price on. But, we are told, Erasmus did not help less well-off students, who will be the focus of the Turing Scheme - but again with no details.
Sixth, the new scheme represents ‘Global Britain’ and the new-found confidence of the UK which allows young people to - in the words of Iain Duncan Smith MP - ‘be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again’.
Apart from ignoring the global dimension of Erasmus that has been built in to the programme in recent years, the idea that Erasmus somehow prevented students or universities engaging in exchanges with the wider world is ludicrous.
Instead, ‘Global Britain’ represents little more than a phrase, unsupported by details of what it means or how it will benefit society. The Turing Scheme will ‘open up the world’ to UK students - but assumes the world wants it.
Seventh, the discourse of Global Britain ignores many of the stark realities only too familiar to anyone involved in organising exchanges. A scheme that only funds outgoing students, with a harsh and costly visa system for incoming students, is hardly going to help with conclusion of exchange agreements with developing countries.
And while the universities minister claims that disadvantaged UK students will, under the new scheme, study at Ivy League universities in the US instead of poorly-performing EU universities (using a ranking system that favours the US/UK university model), no thought is given to such basic practical questions as to whether students would be paying the high fees involved, nor the myriad of challenges involved in setting up and running exchanges.
Eighth, Global Britain can be contrasted with the (dis)United Kingdom. The Irish government announced that students in Northern Ireland can still participate in Erasmus via a workaround solution. The Scottish government has expressed its desire to continue to participate, but is hampered by its lack of legal ability to conclude international agreements in its own right.
“As the most popular destination for Erasmus, the UK benefitted economically from incoming students, with these students leaving with (mostly) a positive image of the UK and its societies”
In short, any support for study abroad schemes is welcome. If the Turing Scheme was launched as an addition to Erasmus, then university professionals, including myself, would be jumping for joy.
But instead, we now have a period of prolonged uncertainty while we work out what the new scheme means - and the answers given by the UK government in response to questions in the House of Lords on the new scheme were not illuminating.
Erasmus has built up over a 30-year period and become part of the fabric of education across the EU, relying on extensive contacts, familiarity, common standards, expectations and understandings.
To claim that Brexit allows the UK to unilaterally replace it in a matter of months with a global scheme is not ambitious; it is rash, and the students and young people who are the main beneficiaries of the scheme are likely to be the ones to lose out.
In this, we find many familiar aspects of the Brexit process: lofty promises about the opportunities afforded by leaving the EU, but without any of the detail and only the need to ‘believe’ in a Global Britain that seems increasingly isolated.