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What would a “no deal” Brexit mean for the Erasmus programme?

Nov 22, 2017

Hardline Eurosceptics in the Tory Party—think John Redwood, Owen Paterson, Jacob Rees-Mogg—are increasingly talking up the “no deal” Brexit outcome. It wouldn’t be so bad, they say. Britain could muddle through.

Actually, such an exit would be disastrous. While we rightly focus attention on the headline issues of a border in Ireland and EU citizens’ rights, there are many other problems that leaving the EU without a deal might cause. In this series we’re exploring them. Here I want to look at the consequences for the Erasmus programme of a “no deal” outcome.

What is Erasmus and how long has it been going?

The Erasmus programme is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It is an EU-run scheme best known for facilitating the exchange of students between universities across Europe. In fact it has grown to cover much more, including work placements, training, teaching placements and so on: this is why it is currently known as “Erasmus+.”

Is it popular?

Since the programme began in 1987, 200,000 British students have participated, and around 15,000 now take part annually. Most degrees involving a European language include a year in the corresponding country, and increasingly the same applies for students studying Law, Business, Engineering, Science, Arts and Social Science subjects. Opportunities to study in English across Europe under Erasmus have grown and the UK has been one of the most in demand destinations for other EU students.

Ok, so how will Erasmus be affected by Brexit?

Erasmus+ is an EU programme, so if we do nothing, leaving the EU will mean leaving Erasmus. The current programme runs until 2020 and the European Commission has just launched its set of ideas for how to take things forward. And the UK was missing from the map. There is no doubt that the EU side wants to continue the relationship with the UK and its high quality institutions. But with Britain soon to be on the outside, the priority will be enhancing cooperation between the remaining members.

Wait, Brexit means the UK won’t be able to take part?

Maybe. After Brexit, the UK will be a “third country,” outside of the EU. But a handful of non-EU countries do take part, including Iceland, Norway and Turkey. These countries pay into the budget and participate in the schemes, but can’t lead certain projects or have a say over how the budget is spent.

This is where the “no deal” part comes in. If we make suitable arrangements with the EU, Britain could possibly continue to participate in the programme. But there is no automatic right for the UK to take part—it all depends on the negotiations, and adhering to the rules. On which point…

Didn’t Switzerland get kicked out of Erasmus recently?

Yes (sort of). After a referendum which voted to limit immigration in 2014, the Swiss government wasn’t able to ratify a protocol extending free movement to Croatia (which joined the EU in 2013). In breaking one agreement, all of them fell. Negotiations to get back in to Erasmus are ongoing. The UK should take note: if it wants to participate, it will have to agree to follow strict regulations.

Students surely don’t need the EU to study somewhere else though, do they?

No, but it certainly helps. Universities exchange students across the globe in all sorts of ways—but Erasmus funds students who participate directly, which is essential for less well-off young people. The administrative costs of exchanges between Erasmus partner countries are much lower, which explains why the scheme has become so popular.

Certainty is also important: as 16-18 year olds start to think about what degree to do, whether the funding for an Erasmus year will be guaranteed is a significant concern. So unless we’re very careful, Brexit uncertainty could deter some sixth formers from taking up language degrees in the first place, even if Britain continues to participate in some other exchange schemes.

What does all this mean for EU students coming here?

Welcoming students from other EU countries has helped internationalise our universities. The students have gone home with, in most cases, an understanding of and affection for the UK—which has also helped cement our reputation for excellence in higher education. Fewer students coming deprives the UK of a strong plank of its “Global Britain” image.

Right. So what’s the government doing to sort all of this out?

The PM’s recent speech in Florence referred to continuing participation in some education and research programmes. The government has promised to underwrite grant agreements for Erasmus+ awarded while the UK is still an EU Member State. But that is only likely to be a temporary solution.

The strong support of the government for the programme will be needed, as will a clear strategy supported by sufficient funding. And, most crucially of all, we will need a Brexit deal. Without that, Erasmus could be over.

Source: Prospect Magazine, November 2017