By Jessie Williams
Uncertainty. The buzzword of Brexit. What will happen? When will it happen? Will it actually happen? So many questions. But before you zone out and click on to something else: I know there’s been a lot written about it and my musings may not add anything substantial to the debate, but I want to focus on a topic that has largely been ignored in the discourse both before and after that fateful day in June, something that is very important to students both in Britain and Europe: the Erasmus scheme.
First, a bit of background: named after the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, a leading intellectual figure of the early 16th century who traveled around Europe and eventually left his fortune to the University of Basel in Switzerland. Erasmus is also a ‘backronym’ for European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. It began in the 1980s as a European Union student exchange programme which funds organisations and individuals to study or train in Europe, now commonly referred to as Erasmus+. There’s no paying back after you graduate, no crippling debt. Brilliant.
There have been no official decisions by the European Commission about what will happen once Britain leaves the EU. So far students from UK universities currently studying in Europe or those planning to study there in 2017 will not be affected. But what about after 2019 (or as Boris optimistically says, 2018)? Like most people, Aliya Sorgen, International Partnerships Manager at City University of London, is not sure. “It is very difficult to comment on potential future situations, and to be honest, I would not want to raise or lower expectations by saying something that may not end up being true.” She continues: “I’m afraid all of us working within the field of Erasmus+ are as desperate as students are to know what the situation will be, but at this time we just need to wait.”
It seems we are playing a waiting game. Both David Davis, chief Brexit negotiator, and Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities, have refused to guarantee the Erasmus programme will be kept. When asked about it, Davis only said: “There is no immediate change to the rights of UK universities and their students and staff from EU countries… There is no change to those currently participating in, or about to start, Erasmus exchanges.” Johnson himself knows the benefits of being able to study in Europe and probably received Erasmus funding as a postgraduate student in Brussels and France.
The British public are being kept in the dark. Many young people believe that it would be very unfair if students are prevented from receiving Erasmus grants considering 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain in the European Union, according to YouGov polling data.
So this is a plea to Davis and Johnson and all the other negotiators: keep Erasmus. It is vital. It is worthwhile. And it would be a tragedy if it is not kept or replaced by something similar. Let me explain why…
I am currently sat in Oma Cafe drinking a café au lait on a chilly French December day, reflecting on the first four months of my exchange. Would I have ever ventured across the channel to study in Europe if I hadn’t been able to receive the Erasmus grant? In short, no. Money is what it boils down to. Although not a substantial amount, the €300 per month is a big help by going towards rent and living costs. The great thing about Erasmus is that it doesn’t matter what your background or financial situation is, everyone gets the same amount of money each month – it only differs depending on your destination country. The thought of future students opting out of studying in Europe because they will not get the same opportunity fills me with sadness. These past few months I have experienced so much and met some incredible people. More than anything, an exchange is meant to be an eye-opening, horizon-broadening experience, and as a naïve girl from rural England, that is exactly what it has been. In my opinion, I think a year abroad should be mandatory. To immerse yourself in a different culture, to meet people from around the globe, and to hear their stories and their views is an incredible lesson in itself.
In the last few years there has been a surge of UK students choosing to study or work in a European country through the EU’s Erasmus programme. During the 2013-14 academic year, almost 15,600 UK students spent up to a year in another European country – up to 115% since 2007, according to Erasmus statistics. Additionally, there are over 27,000 EU students currently on the Erasmus scheme in Great Britain who have fees paid for by the EU, and the scheme also funds exchanges for university staff and volunteer/sports programmes.
One British student who is determined to study in Europe during 2017 is Tim Drew, 20, studying History at York University. He would like to go to the University of Utrecht in Holland in order to gain life experience. “I want to look back on my 20’s when I’m older and be happy with the experiences I took part in, and gaining the life and intellectual experience of living abroad would be high on a list of things that would help with this.”
However, he says: “Coming from a family who do not have a lot of money, the Erasmus funding would be crucial for me to be able to live comfortably in a big city like Utrecht.” Drew says that if he was not able to get an Erasmus grant then he would look into every possible option to try to get funding through different means. “I’ve tried to not let it affect my choice in pushing for a year abroad, as I think whatever the hardships Brexit may bring to the potential year, they do not outweigh the positives I would likely gain from this experience. I would like to think that by the time I go to live abroad there will not be too many changes from what there is now, but either way I truly hope it will not hinder any plans to study abroad.”
Drew is staying optimistic – and will probably not be affected next year – but there is no doubt that there will be less students from UK universities choosing to study in Europe if Erasmus is stopped, particularly as today’s students already have a large financial burden to bear. Billie Bradley is studying International Relations at the University of Nottingham and is currently on an exchange here in Reims. She says: “It’s such a shame because Post-Brexit, I think it’s more important than ever that students take the opportunity to discover new countries and expose themselves to different opinions and cultures, otherwise we risk becoming really insular. Leaving the EU will already make the process of moving to a European country much more difficult, and with a lack of funding on top of that I think that students will really struggle with making the decision to study abroad.”
Bradley believes the grant has been particularly useful in going towards her rent and for her trips home throughout the year. “It’s also been handy considering the state of the pound versus the euro post-Brexit, which initially made living costs slightly higher than expected,” she says.
So what will the future hold? If Britain is unable to keep participating in the Erasmus scheme after it leaves the EU then one possible solution is to adopt the Swiss model. Since Switzerland voted to restrict free movement in 2014, it has been refused entry to Erasmus. The country started its own scheme, The Swiss-European Mobility Programme, which is funded by the Swiss government instead of the EU. It has seen a record number of students sign up to study abroad, which should offer some hope to British students thinking about studying in Europe post-Brexit.
But Drew hopes that the people in charge of Brexit will see how valuable Erasmus is to students and be able to keep it in place. He says: “I think the experience gained abroad will help the future generation of workers in the U.K.” Indeed, the scheme has enriched countless lives over the past 30 years so it would be a shame for it to end – particularly at a time when ties between European countries is so crucial. However, I do know one thing for certain: we won’t be getting any answers for a while.