The UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus student exchange programme was confirmed in late December as part of the Brexit deal.
The programme provided financial assistance in vocational training and work placements abroad to those who wished to study, work or train across the 32 participating countries.
The announcement came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson explained that the scheme was “too expensive” despite his confident reassurance in the Commons in January 2020 “there is no threat to the Erasmus scheme”.
It is a decision which has caused huge controversy despite the government’s promise that the programme will be replaced by new UK led version, the Turing Scheme.
Figures calculated prior to the pandemic showed that about half of UK university students who studied abroad did so through the Erasmus exchange scheme.
University students who took part could be eligible for a “large contribution” towards their tuition fees in the UK and an additional grant of up to $350 a month whilst studying or working abroad.
When the end to Erasmus was announced as part of the Brexit deal on Christmas Eve, Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, branded the decision as ‘cultural vandalism’. In a tweet, she said:
There will be lots of focus – rightly – on the economic costs of Brexit. But ending UK participation in Erasmus – an initiative that has expanded opportunities and horizons for so many young people – is cultural vandalism by the UK government. https://t.co/sOxpcCWq5z
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 24, 2020
Stephanie, 22, took part in Erasmus whilst completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds. She told Unsaid how valuable and culturally enriching she found the experience of studying and working abroad.
“My Erasmus year was truly one of the best years of my life , and it makes me sad to think that because of Brexit so many people could lose the opportunity to participate. Everyone that I know who has undertaken an Erasmus+ year has come out of it with nothing but good memories and the feeling of accomplishment.
“My confidence in my academic capacity grew exponentially during Erasmus. This was evident in my results both during my year abroad and when I came back to Leeds. I was hitting higher marks than I ever thought were possible when I returned to England.
“I made contacts with members of the European Parliament through once in a lifetime opportunities at the European institutions that would have not been an option without the schemes put in place with Erasmus.
“More importantly, I made lifelong friends with people who shared a similar view of life as I did. I have made friends that I talk to every day through this scheme and it breaks my heart to think of so many friendships that could be potentially lost because of the decision to leave the scheme.”
Replacing Erasmus: The Turing Scheme
The government has, however, indicated that a new programme will be put in place for students to study and work abroad.
Named ‘the Turing Scheme’, the programme will cost over £100 million and start in September 2021, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools.
In a press release, the government said that the programme “will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and aims to deliver greater value for money to taxpayers”.
Due to the fact that the number of British students who travelled to Europe using Erasmus amounted to only half the number of EU students studying in the UK on the programme, the government states that a UK led replacement scheme will offer greater financial benefit to the country.
In 2017, 16,561 UK students participated in Erasmus, whilst 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK.
International Education Champion, Sir Steve Smith, welcomed the replacement scheme and praised the government’s recognition of the importance of cultural enrichment.
“As the International Education Champion, I’m pleased to see that the govt is committed to international exchanges.
“So much of what makes education so rewarding for all is the chance for students and learners in schools, colleges and universities experience new cultures and, by doing so, develop new skills”.
However, only days after the Turning Scheme was announced by the UK government, there was suggestion that the Scottish Government could make a request to the UK government to remain part of Erasmus.
Universities Minister Richard Lochhead called the UK’s alternative Turing Scheme a “watered down” version of Erasmus which did not support visits to Scotland.
He added that the Scottish Government had only found out about the new programme from media reports.
According to the Scottish Government, over 2,000 students and staff from Scotland used the Erasmus exchange programme annually.
It also said that Scotland proportionally sent more students and attracted more Erasmus participants from Europe than any other UK nation.
The new scheme is also not expected to fund EU students coming to the UK for study or work, as Erasmus does now.
Some have also pointed out that Erasmus took 30 years to establish and so a starting date of September 2021 may be too ambitious.
Some details about the #turingscheme as a replacement for #Erasmus are now out. Here are my initial thoughts, from an institutional and education perspective more than costs. /1 https://t.co/spyopjc2W8
— Prof Paul James Cardwell (@Cardwell_PJ) December 26, 2020
The UK Government’s press release states that educational institutions are encouraged to begin preparation with international partners “as soon as possible” in order to “meet delivery timescales” which will allow the new scheme to be introduced in the Autumn.