Quitting Erasmus Is Another Brexit Blow for Britain's Youngsters

Granted, there are bigger problems to be tackled right now than a lost semester abroad. Many British children aren’t even returning to school this week and there may be more classroom closures ahead as Boris Johnson’s government tries to contain the new virus variant.

Against the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the prospects and mental health of school-aged children, Brexit hardly bears mentioning. Except that just when young people have lost so many learning opportunities to the pandemic, their government has closed a door that it might have left open.

While quitting the European Union meant leaving its institutions and single market, Johnson had the chance to continue Britain’s participation in the EU’s Erasmus scheme — a popular European university student exchange program — and indeed pledged to do so last year. At the last minute, however, he opted out. That’s a real shame. A replacement scheme, named after the World War II codebreaking mathematician Alan Turing, may offer some consolation, but it doesn’t make up for the value that’s being lost and it looks underfunded.

It’s easy to be blasé about student mobility. Some consider exchange programs an excuse for a semester of fun, and I’m not entirely disputing this. They are largely taken up by more privileged students, with only 11% of Erasmus participants coming from underprivileged backgrounds (a proportion the EU intends to increase). Some also argue that such schemes are unnecessary in an age, were it not for the pandemic, of cheap travel.

And yet, the benefits of facilitating international experiences for students are unarguable. They broaden horizons, build curiosity, develop interests and create empathy. Foreign study is linked to improved employment prospects. It arguably makes for better informed, more engaged citizens.

The U.K. government didn’t dispute any of this, which is why it immediately announced the Turing substitute. But its arguments that the EU program was too costly or disproportionately benefited other countries don’t stack up.

The European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students was set up in 1987 and rechristened in 2014 as Erasmus+. It also takes in graduate students, university staff exchanges, vocational courses, voluntary work and sports programs. Its 16.45 billion euro ($20.13 billion) multi-annual budget (3.37 billion euros in 2019) provided more than 4 million young people the opportunity to study and train abroad.

At a cost per learner of 15 euros a day, it might well be the EU’s most cost-efficient major program. The program is tuition free and the European Commission even pays students a stipend to contribute to extra costs. It’s certainly one of the EU’s most popular initiatives and is due to be expanded even further. 

Britain has been a key participant. Between 2014 and 2018, some 167,000 U.K. citizens benefited from the program. Erasmus grew in popularity each year, with a nearly 25% increase in British students studying abroad since the Brexit vote (the number of incoming students and trainees has declined slightly). The University of Edinburgh, the University of Warwick and the University of Glasgow sent the most students abroad, with Spain, France and Germany the most popular destinations. The U.K. was the fourth most popular destination for other EU students.

Opponents in Johnson’s Conservative Party argued that it benefited EU students more and so was poor value for money. But that was a bit like complaining that more Europeans visit London than Londoners visit Europe. It also ignores the fact that international exchange students brought 440 million pounds ($602 million) into the U.K. economy in 2018, not to mention the qualitative contributions they made to campuses.

While lower income students were underrepresented in Erasmus programs, it wasn’t just the sons and daughters of middle class families who benefited. In its report on the future of U.K. participation in the scheme, a House of Lords committee noted, “We are particularly concerned that losing access to the program would disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs and disabilities.” 

There are conflicting stories about when the Erasmus talks fell apart, but the EU’s price for Britain to buy into the program was deemed too high. Brexiters thought some of what Erasmus did — such as the Jean Monnet scheme to fund European studies and the European Solidarity Corps to encourage civil projects and volunteering — was too much about promoting the EU. The government sought an Erasmus-lite for the U.K., focused on higher education exchanges with less budget commitment over a shorter time frame.

It was the Brexit talks in miniature, it seems. The U.K. wanted to cherry-pick from Erasmus+ and have a lower entry price. The EU said no. “We’ll do it better,” was Johnson’s reply.

The Turing program will provide some new opportunities, but it will take time to become established. A budget of 100 million pounds for 35,000 students breaks down to a little over 2,800 pounds per student, which is pitifully small — especially if Asian and expensive American universities are being targeted. Many aspects of Erasmus, from teaching and training exchanges to vocational opportunities, will be missed, along with the well-established, well-oiled infrastructure and institutional ties that Erasmus built up over more than three decades.

As so often with Brexit, it’s the young who lose the most. The pandemic just makes the timing especially lousy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.