Exchange Student

Why the UK’s withdrawal from Erasmus represents another casualty of Brexit

When asked what concrete impact the EU has on our lives, I almost always find myself bringing up Erasmus. Often referred to as “the jewel in the EU’s crown”, the decision of the UK to withdraw not only from the EU but from this renowned student exchange programme was met with surprise and confusion and represents another casualty of Brexit with immeasurable cost to both sides.

This was a British mistake. As a Czech student in the 1990s, I remember the limited possibilities we had for studying abroad without Erasmus. I was therefore especially lucky to receive a scholarship at the Diplomatic School in Madrid. Thankfully, joining the Erasmus programme soon after made studying abroad possible for many more students from the Czech Republic and other post-communist countries.

The ambitious Erasmus programme facilitates and opens up such study abroad possibilities at a greater scale and has been a stepping stone for younger generations to broaden their horizons and travel, work, and profit from the Single Market. And it covers much more than just student mobility – for instance, it also covers internships and teacher mobility.

From my own experience, I know how valuable studying abroad is for personal, academic and professional development. You have the opportunity to learn a foreign language first-hand and establish a network of friends that further enriches your understanding of other cultures.

While exchanges will still be possible between British and European universities through bilateral agreements, British students will not benefit from the monthly grants provided by Erasmus, now officially known as Erasmus+. It will also be harder for academics and teachers to train or teach abroad. Certain topics were clearly going to be difficult from the get-go in Brexit negotiations, however when it came to Erasmus, it seemed to be a no-brainer.

“I believe that it is a major error for the UK government to sacrifice this scheme and, in doing so, punish young students”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared last January that there “is no threat to the Erasmus scheme” and that the UK “will continue to participate”, pointing out the benefits. There was a broad consensus in British politics and strong support from British universities to keep the exchange programme.

In this spirit, a report in 2019 from the House of Lords EU Committee warned that the benefits of the Erasmus programme would be very difficult to replicate with a national programme, such as the one the government is now planning. So why would the UK back away from all this?

Mr Johnson has recently started saying that the programme is too elitist, despite the House of Lords report also concluding that ending the programme would disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities.

The British government also justifies its decision due to the need to achieve budgetary savings, claiming that British students do not benefit enough from it. Others have argued that such programmes should not be limited to one region for the new “global Britain”, forgetting that global exchanges are already possible under Erasmus Mundus.

The UK announced a new national scheme called Turing, though little is currently known about it. It remains to be seen how this strategy works in practice with other third countries. Will they fully engage in this new experimental programme?

Leaders from British academia have further pointed to the economic impact of the drop in European students enrolled, which would be 57 percent in the first year, according to the UK think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute. The net shortfall for Britain is estimated, according to the University UK interest group, at £243m per year.

We often mention the economic impact of Brexit, which is, of course, crucial. In response, the EU has found ways to help businesses in the long run, or at least minimise the consequences, through financial post-Brexit transition plans. But Erasmus is another story. We cannot really calculate its cultural loss for the future.

“I would like to see our cultural ties with Britain remain alive and thriving, especially for future generations. That is why I am convinced that Europe should stay open for British students, and vice-versa”

I believe that it is a major error for the UK government to sacrifice this scheme and, in doing so, punish young students. Britain welcomed over 30,000 Erasmus students and trainees in 2019, and around 17,000 British students annually benefit from Erasmus. It was also a seemingly unnecessary decision, not even politically important for Brexiteers. Moreover, the UK is losing another part of its soft power, as its universities were a powerful means for promoting the British way of life.

The British government often mentions the importance of highly educated immigration in post-Brexit UK, but to then hamper access to educated young people from the continent remains a mystery to me. I would like to see our cultural ties with Britain remain alive and thriving, especially for future generations. That is why I am convinced that Europe should stay open for British students, and vice-versa.