By Sam Portillo
As the UK leaves the European Union, it undergoes broad legislative changes; some niche and only detected by lawyers, others perhaps more foregrounded. One such tangible feature of EU membership is inclusion in the Erasmus+ programme, which seeks to modernise education and training opportunities across member states. The initiative supports thousands of UK students in travelling abroad each year and takes many European students in the opposite direction.
On 8th January, Parliament rejected an amendment which would have implored the government to seek an extension to the UK’s Erasmus+ membership. The vote sounded alarm bells to universities which have long enjoyed participation in the programme and students who relish the opportunity to travel.
Despite refusing to commit to an extension, PM Boris Johnson reassures students that there is “no threat” to the exchange programme. Whilst the country legally exited the EU on 31st January, the remainder of the year constitutes a transition period, during which both parties can negotiate the details of a future relationship. Currently, it is uncertain whether British involvement in Erasmus will be renegotiated. The Department for Education reports that the government is “committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus+ programme if it is in our interests to do so”.
Under the scheme, UK universities exchange students with partner institutions across Europe. Whilst abroad, students can complete a work placement, which translates into valuable experience for potential employers. Many students cite the experience of living in a new place as being instrumental to their personal growth, as they explore a new culture, meet new people and expand their understanding of the world.
According to a recent survey, 45% of first-year students are planning to travel abroad as part of their education and a further 52% would consider it. For those who were unsure, financial affordability was the biggest concern. This is an obstacle which the Erasmus+ programme seeks to remove by offering travellers €300-350 per month, in addition to the usual maintenance loans and grants provided by Student Finance. The programme has been praised for democratising the opportunity to travel, an experience which may otherwise prove complicated and expensive.
A spokesman for Cardiff University says: “we are committed to the future of student exchange, and to maintaining our relationships with European partner institutions. The UK remains a full participating programme country in the Erasmus+ programme until the 31st December 2020. Even after this date, UK-EU exchanges through Erasmus+ will be able to continue for projects won under the 2020 call or earlier, for the full duration of their grant agreements”.
Cardiff has partnerships with over 170 European universities; outside of the Erasmus framework, it may prove difficult or impossible to maintain cooperation with such an extensive list of institutions. The government might prefer to spend money on “levelling up” education directly as opposed to investing through Brussels bureaucracy. The government could negotiate a watered-down version of Erasmus, which snubs commitments to sport and training and solely focuses on student exchanges. Alternatively, the UK could join Norway, Iceland and other non-EU countries in the next renewal of
Erasmus, which runs from 2021/22. Much like the planes which have long carried students to places anew, Erasmus’ future in the UK is up in the air.