Is the end of Erasmus Nigh?

While working in Leicester University I had a few classes teaching Erasmus students.These were always an interesting change from a lot of the other EAP classes we used to teach and although the students could be a bit challenging at times, they were a memorable bunch of students. I was a shocked earlier this year to see “Erasmus” trending on twitter and a large number of accounts mourning the (imminent) loss of the program. But are Eramsus’ days really numbered? Here is Dan Jones from the University of Leicester to try to explain what’s going on.

For the last two years I’ve had a Google Alert set up for the combined key words of Brexit and Erasmus. Every so often, but not too often, I get a ping telling me about a Brexit/Erasmus news story. I’ve learnt that either the Google Alert algorithm or the UK government isn’t working. I get surprisingly few pings. 


If you’re not familiar with Erasmus, here’s the quickest of summaries. Firstly, as an acronym it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s the EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Students can select up to 4 modules a semester, basically the same ones as the undergraduate students but they can choose from across departments. Some come for just a semester and some for the whole academic year (yes all seven months of it). We currently have students from Spain, France, Germany and Italy. The outbound British students get all the attention in the UK press (as we’ll see a lot of them grow up to be journalists), but the other half of the story is the students from other EU countries who come to study in the UK. 

It’s centrally funded through the EU and runs in 7-year blocks. The current one ends this year and therefore the UK can’t keep putting off signing up for 2021-2027 much longer. Each 7 years has seen the budget and remit expand. The current programme’s budget is 14.7 billion euros. The new programme is notable for its budget of 30 billion euros.


The UK’s involvement may now come to an end. What follows is a short Brexit story where nothing very much happens.

From 24th June 2016 until December 2018 nothing very much happened. In universities, the plan was ‘wait and see’. The government offered to underwrite the current programme, which was nice, but nobody believed them, so universities had to give their own separate guarantees (e.g and e.g.).

The government advice on Erasmus up until 8th December 2018 started with “A scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without agreement (a ‘no deal’ scenario) remains unlikely given the mutual interests of the UK and the EU in securing a negotiated outcome.” By December, it became clear that the May strategy of running down the clock and calling everyone’s bluff was a long shot and wasn’t going to work. Without making a fuss, on the 23rd December 2018, a civil servant updated the advice to “Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed. However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no deal scenario.”

Just to repeat: NOTHING HAS CHANGED 


At a government level it wasn’t clear what preparing for every eventuality actually meant. But by January 2019 it meant hanging the universities out to dry “UK organisations may wish to consider bilateral arrangements with partner organisations that would enable their projects to continue.”


At a university level, all they could do was publish a reassuring strategy statement (e.g), but as everyone was fond of saying you can’t start doing new deals until you’ve left the old one. At a course planning level, how exactly do you prepare for every eventuality? Do you both plan and not plan all the modules, allocate and not allocate hours to teachers, book and not book rooms? So we decided to wait and see. 

This period of limbo gave journalists the opportunity to reflect on what the UK might lose. This and this being the most recent. Essential elements are 1) Facebook just reminded me I was an Erasmus student. 2) I had a lot of fun, 3) That was the year I found myself, 4) It wasn’t all about the drinking. 



From my experience of hungover and sleep-deprived students, there’s some truth to the partying aspect. I can’t say about the finding yourself. But as all these articles quite rightly go on to say, Erasmus students get to experience living somewhere else, and from an academic point of view, they get to study modules at degree level outside of their specialisation. Our Shakespeare and literature modules are taken by students from all academic backgrounds. We have students doing a TESOL module who had previously not given a thought to teaching, let alone teaching English (though admittedly, that doesn’t sound too different to the usual route into teaching English). 


If you were in the UK in 2019 you won’t need reminding that, politically, it went a bit mad. In the run up to the original Brexit deadline of 29th March, El Pais was reporting that Spanish universities were discouraging their students from applying to the UK. At my university, 20% of our Erasmus students are from Spain. But otherwise it was more ‘wait and see’. 

A survey published in April 2019 of prospective students painted a more complex picture. When asked about whether they were more or less likely to study in the UK due to Brexit, 36% of EU students were less interested, 6% more interested. For non-EU international students it’s 10% less interested and 14% more interested. The proportion of ‘more interested’ might seem surprising, but it seems that some students see that a weakened UK pound will give them more spending power and a weakened UK HE will give students more leverage in getting into a higher ranked programme and university. 

Of course it’s the majority in the middle that are neither more nor less interested and fortunately they just carried on as usual, and when we got to the start of term, the numbers held up quite well. We even have Spanish students. The El Pais article was either inaccurate or the students ignored the advice. For most students, the only thing that will stop them applying is taking down the application form. 

In November 2019 Universities UK published “A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT: IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITIES AND MINIMISING RISK” They left the caps lock on as it’s directed at the government and it’s full of specific advice on what should be done. After years of vague technical notices, this is refreshingly readable (for a report on education policy). 

Over the last week, there’s been a bit more pinging from my Google Alert than usual. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats tabled an Erasmus amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill. And when it was inevitably voted down, it was reported in the most pessimistic terms: U.K. Parliament Vote Casts Doubt On Future Of Erasmus Study Abroad Scheme and Fears over future for Erasmus international student exchange scheme after Brexit. (This second of these has this great celeb filler: “Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded disgraceful”. Well if EL James says it’s disgraceful…). But as each of these reports goes on to concede, this doesn’t actually mean anything. With the exception of last year’s madness, opposition amendments don’t get voted for by the government.

In fact, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, saying we’ll probably stay in but if we don’t then we’ll make our own, at least suggests an engagement with the issue. It does raise the question, why would you make your own when there’s a perfectly good one that we’re already using? But it’s not unprecedented, Switzerland withdrew from Erasmus in 2015 as part of a move to limit immigration. The result was the Swiss-European Mobility programme.

At this point I’m as miserable as the next person on this rain sodden island, but I seem to be a bit more optimistic about Erasmus. Once we get past 31st January I think there will be a flurry of mini deals and Erasmus will be one of them. And anyway my most recent Google Alert tells me that Boris Johnson has just said flat out, we’re staying in Erasmus. Now, if we can’t trust the Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government then who can we trust?

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