Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate in my home country of Austria, I was very excited by the possibilities offered by the Erasmus student exchange programme in sampling life in another European nation. But I didn’t yet know that it would be a life-transforming experience.
I missed out on the first placing I applied for, at Lund University in Sweden, but my disappointment was soon replaced by the joy of being able to study at King’s College London instead. I truly enjoyed the cultural diversity of London, as well as the neuroscience courses I explored and the friendships I made, many of which continue to this day.
That initial year abroad extended to more than 12 years of expat life in the UK and the US. A PhD at the University of Birmingham was followed by an EU Marie Curie outgoing international fellowship in the US, and then by a return to the UK for additional postdoctoral research. That period not only broadened my scientific and cultural horizons, it also changed my life at a very personal level as I met my partner and started a family.
My story is by no means unique. The European Union‘s Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study, published in 2019, revealed that one in five Erasmus students met their partner during a placement. It also revealed that studying and working abroad improve interpersonal and intercultural skills – and therefore employability.
Erasmus also seems to help strengthen a European identity among participants. As this, sadly, is not aligned with the spirit of Brexit, one can only wonder whether it contributed to the decision of the UK to terminate its participation in Erasmus+ as the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December.
While the UK plans to launch a globally focused alternative to Erasmus+, it is still unclear whether the Turing scheme will be a true replacement. It appears, for instance, that it will not cover the costs of students coming to the UK, thereby rendering the UK a less attractive destination for overseas students – and, in many cases, simply an unaffordable one. That is a great shame as we should not underestimate the value that exchange students bring to their host countries, contributing not only economically but also intellectually and culturally.
Nor do there seem to be any plans for the Turing scheme to cover the staff exchanges for teaching and training purposes, which – among other opportunities – were added to the Erasmus scheme in 2014, when it changed its name to Erasmus+. Such exchanges help to boost the take-up of innovative teaching methods, with 43 per cent of participating staff reporting in the 2019 impact study that they started to use at least one innovative teaching method during their stay abroad. The absence of this staff development opportunity can only damage UK higher education.
Any diminution in overseas mobility translates into potential loss of life opportunities, not only in terms of professional and personal development but maybe also in terms of life destinations. Now back in Austria, I work as a coordinator for international affairs at Graz University of Technology. Encouraging today’s students to seek international experiences is a job well suited to the personal path that the Erasmus programme led me down – but I am very sad that the opportunity that I had to go to the UK is no longer available to many of our students.
For their UK counterparts, there is a little ray of sunshine in that at least students from Northern Ireland will still be able to take part in Erasmus after the Irish government agreed to fund their participation. But the horizons and opportunities of students and staff on the British mainland may be narrowed unless great care is taken to make sure that the Turing scheme is an adequate replacement.
The UK was one of the 11 founder members of Erasmus 1987 (there are now 34 participating nations). Hence, as Big Ben chimed at 11pm GMT on that strange, party-less New Year’s Eve, it signalled the end of another successful international relationship. The consequences could be long-lasting and felt far and wide, on many personal and professional levels.
Barbara Lorber is a coordinator for international affairs at Graz University of Technology, Austria.