As 2020 drew to a close, there was both good and bad news for Erasmus+. Just days after the Council and Parliament reached a political agreement paving the way for the next seven years of the programme, the news came that the United Kingdom had opted not to participate in Erasmus+ from January 2021 onwards. Citing the excessive cost of participation, the UK government announced it would go alone with a new scheme named after the mathematician Alan Turing.
Erasmus+ is an unparalleled European Union success story, with 10 million people having participated since the scheme’s inception in 1987. It repeatedly appears among the Union’s primary achievements in Eurobarometer opinion polls. It forges a sense of belonging to Europe and builds cultural bridges. It improves employment prospects for those who participate and fosters cooperation among education and training institutions, youth organisations and sports clubs across the continent and around the world.
Between 2014 and 2020, around four million people of all ages - students, schoolchildren, apprentices, teachers, sports staff, youth workers and many more - were able to participate in Erasmus+ through mobility exchanges and cooperation projects. Over that period, between 16,000 and 17,000 UK students took part in exchanges each year. The UK was an even more popular Erasmus+ destination, receiving some 31,000 students annually, behind only Spain and Germany.
“Erasmus+ is an unparalleled European Union success story, with 10 million people having participated since the scheme’s inception in 1987”
There is no doubt that the UK’s departure is a lose-lose outcome. For young people in the UK, the prospects and opportunities that Erasmus+ has offered over 30 years of careful construction cannot be conjured up overnight through a new scheme.
It will take many years to put in place the architecture to build an effective alternative to Erasmus+ in UK education and training institutions. And for people across Europe, the UK’s decision closes the door to an immensely popular destination, with its world-class higher education institutions and its rich cultural and political history.
As Erasmus+ exchange programmes for students and cooperation projects for institutions disappear from the UK, ties in the education field will also inevitably loosen. This is regrettably even more likely given the new post-free movement mobility regime. From January 2021, EU students wishing to study at a UK university require a visa and vice-versa.
There are also no longer reciprocal arrangements for tuition fees and access to loans, meaning EU students will face eye-watering costs if they wish to study in the UK. This gap will also represent a clear obstacle to UK students following courses in the EU. While it pains me to say it, I fear that we are about to see the entire UK education sector move further away from the European Union, despite the insistence by both the UK and EU higher education sectors that continued academic and research cooperation is essential. We are now left with only cooperation on research through Horizon Europe to maintain some links.
In the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee, we have consistently made the case for the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus+, both for the sake of people in the EU and the UK and in the interests of broader policy and institutional cooperation. Of course, we have always been clear that the UK is not a special case and so participation comes with conditions and a fair financial contribution, as it does for every other participating country.
It is particularly disappointing - not to mention surprising - to hear the UK cite excessive participation costs as the reason to walk away and start again with its own brand-new scheme. The UK’s participation fee would have been GDP-linked as it is for every other associated country. Moreover, the European Parliament has always been clear that spending money on Erasmus+ is an investment in the future.
“From January 2021, EU students wishing to study at a UK university require a visa and vice-versa. There are also no longer reciprocal arrangements for tuition fees and access to loans, meaning EU students will face eye-watering costs if they wish to study in the UK”
It is sad to see that the UK, a founding member of Erasmus, sees it purely as a cost. The UK’s decision to call time on Erasmus+ is, therefore, bad news. Nevertheless, as rapporteur for the Erasmus+ programme for 2021-2027, I remain upbeat.
Going forward, Erasmus+ will have a substantially reinforced budget, meaning it can offer more lifechanging opportunities to more people from across the Union and beyond. And, most importantly for the Parliament and for me personally, we will be able to ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those we have failed to reach in the past will participate in far greater numbers.
For me, the UK’s decision is a source of regret, first and foremost for the young people who will miss out both in Europe and in the UK, but also because it will weaken dialogue and cooperation in education and training. It goes without saying that the door remains open. In the end, however, we have much to look forward to as we develop a more inclusive, more impactful Erasmus+ programme over the next seven years.