The EU-UK trade deal which came into force on 1 January 2021 ends the UK’s participation in Erasmus+, the EU’s largest education, training, youth and sports programme. The UK will not be signing up to the programme’s next seven-year cycle, beginning in 2021, meaning that British young people – as well as teachers, university administrators, youth workers and others – have lost the right to apply for funds to study, learn, volunteer and travel in the European Union – and a number of non-EU countries – while European youth are missing out on the same opportunities in the UK. The UK government’s decision itself is not up for discussion in this piece, our concern instead is ensuring the proposed successor to Erasmus+ achieves its full potential.
Its replacement, the Turing scheme, is a £100 million fund enabling British students to work and study abroad. The scheme aims to provide funding for 35,000 students to embark on exchanges and placements outside the UK and is projected to start in September 2021. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the scheme frames it as an emancipatory move for the UK universities sector, replacing a flawed and limited programme, but such criticism largely misunderstands the reality of Erasmus. Failure to learn the right lessons from the EU programme could mean the Turing scheme misses its opportunity to promote vital exchange between British young people and the rest of the world.
Much of the criticism of Erasmus focuses on the cost of participation (some £200 million annually), but this fails to recognize the financial and non-financial benefits of taking part. Far from acting as a drain on the economy, Erasmus has facilitated the movement of well-funded students into the UK for limited periods, during which they have provided a lucrative customer base for the higher education, services and hospitality sectors. Research by Universities UK suggests that the UK actually made a net profit of £243 million per year from its participation in Erasmus.
Furthermore, as one of Europe’s most popular destinations for students, the UK has benefitted greatly in terms of cultural diplomacy and soft power.
While it is often perceived as a programme benefitting the university-age children of the metropolitan upper middle class, the majority of Erasmus funding and opportunities actually go to young people outside universities and higher education. This includes opportunities in vocational training and apprenticeships, adult education, volunteering and youth work schemes, including youth worker training and youth exchanges.
Although data on inclusion among higher education Erasmus participants are hard to come by, there is evidence of diversity and inclusion among its non-academic participants. According to European Commission data, validated by the UK government, young people from underprivileged backgrounds make up a third of UK participants in Erasmus vocational training mobilities and 50 per cent of youth exchange programme participants.
But inclusion is also a matter of support structures and substantial investment. The current iteration of Erasmus includes a dedicated funding mechanism for young people with special needs and disabilities through which all outgoing and incoming students and learners are eligible for full reimbursement of costs related to their additional needs.
A two-way exchange
One of the key strengths of Erasmus is that it builds on bilateral and multilateral cooperation between countries on the basis of equality and mutual assistance. For example, the waiving of student fees for all participants means that no student, pupil or apprentice participating in Erasmus is subject to the regular degree or qualification fees in their host country.
The wider principle of two-way exchange, where participating countries are open to outgoing and incoming movement of students, is also fundamental to realizing the benefits to the individuals involved. The invaluable mutual learning we have witnessed in delivering the Common Futures Conversations project, a Chatham House initiative which brings together youth from over 70 African and European countries, is just one example of the benefits young people derive from meeting and engaging with their peers in other countries.
Lessons for the Turing scheme
Rather than ignoring the positive aspects of the Erasmus+ programme, UK policymakers should reflect on how these can be continued within the Turing scheme. Three elements, in particular, stand out.
First, the scheme should provide funding for young people to come to the UK to study, learn and volunteer – not just for UK students to travel abroad. This is vital because of the soft power and financial benefits that can be derived from such exchange.
Second, it should be extended to include young people who are not currently in full-time higher education, such as those in vocational learning, youth workers and volunteers.
Third, ambitious investment of both time and resources is required to promote the scheme to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and to support inclusion and wider participation.
There are many worrying myths about the flaws of Erasmus that threaten to undermine the Turing scheme’s success before it even starts. By viewing Erasmus as an expensive foreign exchange fund for privileged university students, there is a risk that a replacement will be designed which perpetuates significant structural inequalities within UK society. Instead, the UK government should seize this opportunity to develop a scheme that provides value to the taxpayer and truly represents an inclusive and open Global Britain.