The UK joined the Erasmus+ scheme in 1987. It allows students from European countries to travel within the EU for half a year or a full year’s study, with the aim of personal, academic and professional development while also strengthening the bond between European nations.
University partnerships are set up for students to go from their home university to a receiving university across Europe. The scheme provides funding for students to pay for maintenance and some university fees. Students are exempt from tuition fees from the receiving institution and would usually pay a small portion of their home university fees.
I was an Erasmus+ student myself two years ago and I can certainly describe it as life-changing in several ways. I spent a year in Hamburg University, Germany, and have since fallen in love with the city. Not only did I gain knowledge of many subjects I never would have encountered in the UK – everything from phenomenology to corporate financial statements, – but I also made a score of new friends and engaged with a wide range of cultures from the other international students studying at the university.
Most importantly, I developed as a person, especially in dealing with shyness and a lack of confidence. While in Germany it felt like every conversation was very low risk and ended in amazing rewards. Being in a different country is somehow freeing; you feel far more relaxed trying new things.
For me, the Erasmus+ scheme was an overwhelmingly positive experience and that has certainly made me positively predisposed towards it. But don’t just take my word for it – Erasmus+ boasts a lot of positive results: the Erasmus+ annual report for 2021 shows a 95% satisfaction rate and a considerable positive feedback from students.
Erasmus+ scheme rejected by the UK
Many people may believe that the Brexit vote is responsible for the loss of Erasmus+, but I think the situation is more complex. While the scheme was created and is funded by the EU, the mechanisms of the scheme were already in place for it to continue after Brexit. However, the UK Government made the conscious decision to axe it when they didn’t necessarily have to. The main EU negotiator, Michael Barnier said he “regretted” the UK’s decision.
Boris Johnson originally promised that there was “no threat” to the scheme. When he took the decision to axe Erasmus+, he described it as a “tough decision” arguing that participation in the scheme meant that the UK “loses out” financially and that Erasmus+ focuses too heavily on Europe. A Commons vote resulted in UK participation being axed.
The Government then unveiled its Erasmus+ replacement, the Turing scheme, which is designed to fund students from the UK to study with greater choice in countries much further afield. It also aims to be more inclusive for students who have a disadvantaged background.
A purely financial decision?
The Erasmus+ scheme cost the UK Government around €160mn a year, providing for the mobility of around 49,000 students and over 7,000 staff members. The Turing scheme will cost the UK Government £110mn pounds in the 2023-2024 cycle, providing for the mobility of 40,206 UK participants, (including high school and other students), with 25,100 university students. Students in both schemes get a similar amount of grant money, with the Turing scheme generally providing slightly more.
There is a crucial difference between the schemes: the Turing scheme only funds the sending of UK students to other countries, whereas the Erasmus+ scheme funded UK students to go to Europe, as well as EU students to come to the UK in a reciprocal agreement.
This is what Boris Johnson meant by “losing out” financially – students coming into the UK from the EU were exempt from tuition fees. The figures show that 9,540 students from the UK went abroad compared to 18,389 EU students coming to the UK. This may have tipped the argument in favour of withdrawal.
However, Johnson’s argument doesn’t represent the economic benefits of having large numbers of EU students come to the UK. The Guardian suggests that British universities “will miss out on a source of income”. Students would also contribute to the economy as consumers, paying for internal travel, rent and food, and some students who might wish to stay could become UK taxpayers.
The funding provided by the Turing Scheme has been criticised, as the scheme fails to guarantee the waiving of tuition fees for UK students at the host university, as individual UK universities must make these agreements themselves, with no guarantees they will be maintained. Travel costs will not be covered, and the cost of living allowance “has been slashed”.
Universities may also give minimal warning to students in terms of getting funding accepted, meaning planned travel is plagued with uncertainty. Neither of these problems are an issue in the Erasmus+ scheme.
The Turing scheme undoubtedly provides global opportunities for UK students, which is welcome. However, it does not operate on a reciprocal basis with other countries with no support for students wanting to study in the UK. I believe that having a formal agreement with other nations would make for a more solid foundation for the Turing scheme with the added closer international relationship that would result.
An important benefit has nothing to do with money. Having international students in our universities opens our UK students to different world views, with fresh and unique perspectives which might challenge our strongly-held beliefs. Bringing a diversity of ideas to our classrooms is crucial for our academic and personal progression.
The Turing scheme may be sound in principle, but with the sacrifice of Erasmus+, there is a lost opportunity for UK students to study in the EU very easily with an established scheme, in places closer to home.