Universities and student unions must protect Erasmus stars

Erasmus students in lecture theatre
Erasmus students in lecture theatre

Erasmus beneficiary and University of Kent alumnus Alex Elliott argues that in order to retain competitive advantage, universities must join together and with their student unions, to reclaim the freedom and rights of their students and staff.

In ‘normal’ times, as you enter the University of Kent in the bustling cathedral city of Canterbury, you will see huge banners welcoming you to the ‘UK’s European University’.

On the University homepage is a link declaring “We are European” – following it you will discover information about satellite campuses in Paris and Brussels, as well as dual UK and European qualifications.

The University of Kent prides itself on its Erasmus+ exchanges, benefitting from a €1.1 million grant. The page proudly states the University’s ‘Strong history of research collaboration with European universities.

It was this “We are European” mantra which swayed me into choosing Kent as my student home, studying “BSc European Economics – German” in which I would gain both an Economics degree and a magical year in the fairytale city of Marburg in Germany. This is where the Grimm brothers, who compiled oral myths and legends such as Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, wrote much of their work. During my stay I met my best friend and found love.

In addition to the EU, full members include: the Republic of North Macedonia, Norway, Iceland, Turkey, Serbia and Liechtenstein. A further 21 countries participate as “Partner Countries neighbouring the EU”, including in the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa region, along with Russia. Even Syria is listed on the Erasmus+ website (even if they do not make much use of it) and more countries are joining this year.

Many more are eligible for “Some Actions of the Programme”. This makes you wonder how cruel a government has to be to explicitly pull their country out of the scheme. British students can have Erasmus and blue passports.

But as of 11pm on New Year’s Eve 2020, for a British student or university to be European became much more difficult. “Welcome to the Middle East, baby,” quips an Egyptian friend. She is not far off – although even Israel, Egypt, Turkey – and to an extent Morocco – participate in Erasmus+.

The Irish government has promised to fund the Erasmus+ scheme and the European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs) for Northern Ireland. The latter guarantees pan-European state healthcare for short stays on the same terms as citizens of the host country.

The Spanish may not lament the loss of drunken British tourists making use of this privilege, but it is there for them nonetheless. Northern Ireland remains integrated in the Single Market, with Freedom of Movement for its citizens, and the Customs Union ensures an invisible border with the Republic. Scotland is fighting for a similar “special status”.

But what about young people in Kent? Which opportunities do we keep? Sadly the answer is very few, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson advertising the new regime as a “Christmas present” for us.

Johnson previously claimed “There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme.” This despite his government having successfully blocked an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill which would have protected the UK’s participation in Erasmus and the EU’s Horizon research programme.

What is Erasmus?

Erasmus is a pan-European (and beyond) educational exchange scheme. Between 2014 and 2020, there was a pooled €14.7 billion budget for the Erasmus+ incarnation. This will be doubled to €30 billion for 2021-2027. It provides accommodation and travel grants for students to study and work abroad in participating countries, and for educators to take part in international training courses.

Since its creation by the EU in 1987, over 9 million students have participated, representing around 5 per cent of European graduates. There are currently more than 4,000 participating institutions.

But Erasmus is about so much more than money and statistics – it opens hearts and minds (including my own) and breeds compassion, tolerance and understanding of other people and ideas. I have far more in common with my international friends in Marburg than the people on my street in my hometown of York.

We don’t need no education

On the expense of Erasmus, This is Mike Galsworthy’s (Scientists for EU) take on the expense of Erasmus and the reasons behind it.

Low income beneficiaries

Part of what makes Erasmus so special is that the programme encourages young people from all backgrounds to study and work abroad, with a particular emphasis on those from low-income families, refugees and migrants, and young people with disabilities who receive additional grants. Participating students do not pay tuition fees, except to their home university if applicable.

Erasmus has brought together generations of young people, forged lifelong friendships and even down the line led to marriages and Erasmus babies! It enhances students’ academic achievement and employability – the 2019 Erasmus+ Impact Study by the European Commission found that of Scottish students who went abroad under the programme, 80% found a job within three months of graduating. Of course, I single out Scotland in case they bring Erasmus back, one way or another!

It breaks my heart to see the government denying young Brits these life-enhancing opportunities; I myself would not have achieved my dream without Erasmus. Of course, young people from privileged backgrounds will always be able to afford international experiences. Ironically Boris Johnson’s father was an MEP and Boris himself attended the European School in Brussels so he ought to know better. And hence, just as with universal healthcare, the Tory front bench seems simply not to care.

What is the UK government afraid of?

This makes you wonder how cruel a government has to be to “explicitly” pull their country out of the scheme. British students could have both Erasmus and blue passports.

The Brexit project always depended for its existence on intolerance and ignorance, as does this increasingly right-wing and authoritarian government. As the National Scot, a pro-independence paper, put it: “The de-Europeanisation of British youth has begun.”

Any programme that educates, creates tolerance and understanding of other cultures, and – God forbid – instils “European” values, such as democracy, rule of law, freedom, equality and respect for human rights, is a threat to the regime and cannot be tolerated.

Never mind that Brits largely wrote the European Convention on Human Rights, which we are leaving. The government and its advisors understand that unless they can reshape the way young people coming of age see themselves (it’s too late for we already bitter, internationalist students) and Britain’s place in the world, their intolerant, predominantly older voter base will disappear and they will be unable to “Keep Brexit Done”, to coin a phrase.

Under the Department for Education’s much touted “global” Turing scheme, the University of Kent will need to have its standards and qualifications ‘re-recognised’ by every partner university and professional body in each member state. The huge time and resources necessary for this undertaking will naturally hinder innovations and development of qualifications, much as increased customs checks dampen trade and make our country poorer.

EU institutions now lack the incentive to offer places to individual British students.

With its complex visa arrangements, a low budget of £100 million (dwarfed by the €679.7 million received between 2014 and 2018 as part of Erasmus+) and ability to limit incoming student numbers, the Turing scheme shows no sign of making up for our former freedom to study, live, love and create lasting friendships across Europe and beyond, transcending diverse cultures and languages.

Aside from the damage to our academic community, the loss of many EU exchange students, which Vivienne Stern, the director of Universities UK International (UUKi), deems likely, will create a large Boris-shaped hole in universities’ finances. In 2018 alone, total incoming exchange students (Erasmus and other programmes) contributed £440 million to UK institutions. To an interconnected international University such as Kent, this poses a serious financial risk.

So what can young people do? There is hope. As mentioned, the Brexit project relies on intolerance and ignorance for its continued existence. In the coming days and months, the consequences of leaving will become ever clearer.

In Kent, the leave-voting majorities are already devastated by the destruction of much of the Dover White Cliffs’ site in order to build additional customs infrastructure, as well as the county at large being mocked as the “Toilet of England,” due to large tailbacks of lorries formed both due to Covid border closures and trial customs checks in December.

As young people today are more enlightened, tolerant and multicultural than any generation before, the hard Brexit project is doomed to fail.

Contingency planning

Universities and Student Unions must now take concrete steps to reclaim the freedom and rights of their students and staff and retain the competitive advantage of British universities.

Firstly, universities must unilaterally promise not to hike fees for incoming exchange students, so that partner institutions are more likely to pledge the same.

“Milepost, University of Kent” by Gregory Williams

Further Reading

Secondly, both universities and student unions across the country should form a coalition, demanding the government rejoin Erasmus and the European Health Insurance scheme, for academics and student exchanges as an absolute minimum. They could even pool their resources and pledge to fund the two programmes themselves.

Even if the proposal were rejected by either the British government or the EU, it would raise the flag of resistance and show our European neighbours as well as our own government, that young people’s rights are being taken against our will, that we are European and together we are never to be underestimated.

Such a flag will be necessary if we are to keep our star shining and one day reclaim our rightful place in our European family.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author.