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Erasmus

In the dying stages of the UK-EU trade deal negotiations before Christmas, the British side opted to jettison its participation in Erasmus, a system of exchange for university students run by the European Commission. That was not a concession forced out of the British negotiators. Instead, they spontaneously removed British universities from the programme, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to as ‘extremely expensive’. In doing so, Johnson reneged on a pledge he made in the UK Parliament in January 2019 to continue with Erasmus.

Erasmus has been hugely successful since its inception in 1987. It has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact on the lives of the students who avail of the year-long placement in another European university that it offers. Its popularity has consistently grown as has the range of opportunities available in its programme. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon condemned the decision to withdraw from Erasmus as ‘cultural vandalism’. The contrastive values of the leaders on either side of the River Tweed could hardly be any clearer.

Students who participate in Erasmus reproduce cultural practices that they witness and live while aboard. They bring back with them everything from proficiency in languages to a proliferation of French cravats to vodka parties hosted by students who have built up their resistance in Moscow. Then there is the biological reproduction: the European Commission estimates that more than 1 million babies have been born as a result of relationships started during Erasmus (the figures are not yet in for the number of attempts).

Cutting Erasmus will drastically thin the stream of foreign student inflow to England and, in short order, diminish the lifeblood of English universities. An alternative to Erasmus to enable UK students to study abroad, the Turing scheme, has been tabled by Johnson. But then many things have been discussed since the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the putative replacement could not possibly rival the continental-wide network of exchanges that Erasmus has built in the four decades of its existence. Neither will the Turing scheme facilitate inward student exchange into the UK and it takes a philistine not to see that as a loss.  It is true that the UK exchequer was a net contributor to the Erasmus scheme’s annual budget, but that contribution represented a tiny cost for the State and about a quarter of the revenue that international students generated for the UK economy.

Besides, this is a dangerous move as studying in British universities is already much less financially viable than in universities elsewhere in Europe. Scottish undergraduate students are charged £1,820 ($2,480) in tuition per year, but the Student Awards Agency Scotland covers that cost. So effectively the Scots study for free. By contrast, students can pay up to £9,250 ($12,600) in tuition fees in England. That makes English university education by far the most expensive in Europe—about 20 times the price, say, of German university education. Non-UK students will now also need to apply for a visa. The prestige of Oxford and Cambridge may be considerable, but for most students England is now a place to avoid for full-term university degrees. Without Erasmus, far fewer EU students will consider studying in England even for a year either. A Study.eu survey found that 84% of EU students would definitely not study in the UK if tuition increases by 100% (it will increase by much more than that).

The deepening cleavage between the offering at Scottish and Northern Irish universities and English universities will also have political consequences. It is clear that stakeholders in the university system throughout the UK hate Johnson’s decision to leave Erasmus, but there are differences in how they can respond. The Irish government will underwrite students in Northern Irish universities who wish to avail of the Erasmus scheme. Scottish universities sought a loophole to remain part of it. To take one example in Scotland, Anton Muscatelli, the Principal (president) of the University of Glasgow, is Italian and a vocal supporter of the EU and many in senior management positions in the Scottish university system are of like mind. However, the European Commission refused Scotland’s bid to continue with Erasmus. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, in so doing the European Commission aided the already strong momentum behind Scottish Independence.

The voting age in Scotland is 16. Since a large swathe of Scotland’s 16 and 17 year-olds have their eyes trained on entry into a university, the growing divergence between Scottish and English national policies on higher education will augment the disaffection that Scotland’s electorate expresses in the next Scottish Parliament election on May 6th.

Moreover, Scotland’s franchise is allocated on a liberal definition of residence as well as on a citizenship basis. Back in September 2014, when Scotland held its first independence referendum, non-Scottish university students who were studying in Scotland exercised their right to vote and their vote aided the independence cause. It is almost certain that a big crop of visiting students who vote this May will endorse a second Scottish referendum, a mandate that the First Minister of Scotland Nichola Sturgeon has built into her party’s re-election campaign.

Naturally, fundamental constitutional changes will not turn on abandoning or retaining Erasmus, but the programme does play an important role in forming meaningful cross-cultural connections that help to create alliances downstream. Students in Northern Ireland can now avail of this cultural exchange whereas students in the rest of the UK cannot. Northern Ireland is seldom accused of being outward-looking, but in years to come the effects of this may contribute to attitudes in Northern Ireland that are more modern and tolerant than in Britain.  

The eschewal of Erasmus neatly symbolises quite how narrow-minded, self-defeating and insular the Brexit project is. Only Brexiteers could have managed such an own goal. The next generation of voters will know how to thank them for it.

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