Brexit is in the news again, after months of being pushed aside by COVID-19. As of tomorrow, the UK is officially, for real this time, out of the European Union. The government has finally reached an agreement with the EU, and while we don’t fully know the implications of leaving, there was one bit of news that has special relevance for exchange diplomacy–the UK is leaving Erasmus+, the EU’s educational exchange programme. Founded in 1987, the programme has had over 10 million participants, across 4,000 institutions in 37 countries.
Despite the fact that we’ve all known Brexit was coming since 24 June 2016, this news was still a bit of a shock. As recently as this year, Boris Johnson was saying that international educational exchanges would be maintained and that Brexit wouldn’t interfere with Erasmus. But like many other aspects of leaving the European Union, this hasn’t quite turned out the way anyone expected.
Young people are obviously the hardest hit by the move, and that’s particularly unfair because today’s undergraduates were too young to vote in 2016. The much-cited “youth vote” (who are now 22-28, 4 years on) went overwhelmingly for remain in the EU referendum. It also has bigger impacts though, beyond just taking funding away from students who wanted to go abroad. Erasmus+ had opportunities for lecturers and researchers, for working abroad, for teacher training, for short-term exchanges–it was a comprehensive programme with a lot to offer the UK generally.
It’s not only going to impact people who wanted to go abroad themselves, either. As The New York Times points out, this move damages our universities and UK soft power, too.
The withdrawal is also a blow for Britain’s vaunted universities, a powerful symbol of its soft power in Europe and around the world, and an important source of income for the country. Britain remains second only to the United States as a destination for international students, but leaving Erasmus could deter many E.U. students who might have used the program as a pathway to a British education.
While this may not affect renowned institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, scores of lesser-known universities could suffer a blow.Elian Peltier, Britain Mourns a Cherished Education Program Ended by Brexit, New York Times, 29 December 2020
The announcement of the UK’s “Brexiting” Erasmus+ came with the promise of a new funding scheme for exchanges, named after Alan Turing. The scheme is for UK students only (not lecturers/researchers or foreign participants like Erasmus+), and includes destination countries outside of Europe. It’s proposed to start in September 2021, and on a much smaller scale than Erasmus+ with just 35,000 participants.
In some ways, Brexit feels like old news–it was all that was talked about until the pandemic happened, all we heard about during Theresa May’s tenure, and all Boris Johnson campaigned on in the last election. But now that it’s happening, (again), and we’re seeing lorry drivers miss Christmas with their families in queues in Kent, and seeing young people lose funding to study abroad during a time when, to be honest, school and university experiences have been the worst ever, it all feels pretty miserable. I don’t know many people who voted to leave in 2016, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t vote for this.