Erasmus+: a minus for the next generation

Julie Ward on a kick in the teeth for young people and why Labour shouldn’t support Johnson’s bad deal

If the future is about young people then they have been well and truly thrown under a bus by the Tories. Boris Johnson’s announcement on Christmas Eve that the UK will no longer participate in the extraordinarily successful and much loved EU Erasmus+ programme is hugely disappointing and a body blow to the next generation, especially as successive Tory ministers and leaders had proclaimed their desire to keep the UK in the programme in a post-Brexit Britain with a much vaunted global outlook. At Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this year on 15th January, Boris Johnson downplayed fears after the Government defeated an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement which would most likely have kept the UK in the programme. “There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme,” said Johnson with his usual bluff and bluster. “UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners.”

Fast forward to 14th December, and Michel Barnier’s team announced that the negotiators had given up on trying to reach an agreement on the UK’s continued participation in the programme. Apparently, it was all about money – the UK did not want to pay for inward mobility – otherwise known as ‘cakeism‘, or quite simply another manifestation of the UK’s now infamous ‘hostile environment’ which sees all foreigners as leeches on society, including those bright young things in the academic community who might one day win the Nobel Prize (such as Andre Geim and Konstantinos Novoselov of Manchester University) or discover a cure for a killer virus (like Turkish immigrants Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci of German company BioNTech).

In the meantime, Gavin Williamson had already instructed the Department for Education to make plans for a replacement scheme should No Deal happen. Money for this was even earmarked in the Chancellor’s autumn Budget, but no detail was attached. We now know that the Government’s putative replacement programme, the Turing Scheme, will not offer the veritable smorgasbord of opportunities available in the ever-improving Erasmus+ programme whose next iteration is due to begin in 2021 with even more focus on marginalised youth, a bigger budget and reduced form-filling. In contrast, the narrowly-focused Turing Scheme will be an administrative headache for universities requiring separate agreements for different countries and complex visa arrangements for exchange students. I predict that EU students will look elsewhere, to the detriment of the UK’s academic community, as well as leaving a big hole in universities’ finances.

The irony remains that the UK has been a net gainer with regards to Erasmus as it often has for other programmes such as Creative Europe, ERDF and ESF. They didn’t put that on the side of a bus; more’s the pity.

Many people, including the Prime Minister, do not seem to understand the breadth of the Erasmus+ programme, which grew from a simple student exchange mechanism to subsume seven education, training and youth strands under one umbrella in 2014. From that point Erasmus was no longer just a valuable programme for adventurous students to study abroad but a personal development programme that also actively supports learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often have fewer opportunities, including migrants and refugees, and young people with disabilities. The programme also advances professional development in the field of peer learning, exchange and upskilling for teachers and youth and community workers.

For more than three decades the programme has brought generations of young people in Europe closer together in a practical way, removing barriers to learning and personal development, and enabling the forging of lifelong friendships. Since the creation of the Erasmus mobility programme in 1987, more than three million young people have studied abroad, and over 300,000 research exchanges, teaching and training projects have been supported.

In 2014 alone, the programme provided the UK with €79.08m in grants and allowed 36,734 British people to study, train or volunteer abroad. These grants helped young people enhance their skills, increase their employability and develop intercultural awareness. The programme also encourages young people to become active citizens and participate in democratic life. Charmingly, there have been Erasmus weddings and babies as young people from different European countries found their soulmates whilst studying abroad, demonstrating the power of intercultural dialogue to bring people together from different nationalities despite language differences.

Those who have studied abroad are less likely to experience long-term unemployment, and participation in the Erasmus study exchange programme is proven to increase job prospects for young people. Programmes like Erasmus are therefore more important than ever in times of economic hardship and high youth unemployment. But can the Turing Scheme match the tried and tested and regularly refined EU project? I doubt it. Even the Government’s claims that their new scheme will open up new opportunities globally is misleading, as Erasmus+ is already operational in 33 countries with more coming on board next year, including many Commonwealth countries. If the Tories mean China, then that nut has already been cracked by several enterprising UK universities who already have global campuses. Or maybe the pivot is to the USA? But across the pond there’s unlikely to be much interest beyond brief summer schools, according to James Cardwell, Professor of Law at the University of Strathclyde, who critiques the nascent scheme tweet by tweet.

I had long predicted that Erasmus+ would fall victim to hard-right nationalist ideology whereby programmes that empower British youth by teaching them European values of freedom, democracy, rule of law, mutual respect, and gender equality, count as ‘propaganda’. I learnt early on in my parliamentary mandate that ultra-nationalism abhors intercultural dialogue, especially when conducted via transformational arts and sports projects.

With our education system under strain despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers, and with our youth service decimated as a result of a decade of austerity, it is even more important that young people are given opportunities to thrive both in and out of school. Sadly the Turing Scheme appears fixated on a market-driven economy with education viewed as another commodity rather than having intrinsic value.

Most importantly, by ending freedom of movement, a hard Brexit deprives future generations of young Britons of the chance to broaden their minds, learn a foreign language, enjoy new culture and gain a valuable European experience – not only key for their employability, but for their own personal and cultural development.

By giving one less opportunity to meet, exchange and interact with their nearest neighbours, we risk depriving young British people of an extraordinary opportunity to acquire the skills they need to become open and active citizens in a diverse and tolerant society.

It is for this reason, and the withdrawal from other EU co-operation projects such as Europol and Creative Europe to name two, that I believe Labour MPs should not vote for the Tory ‘hard Brexit’ deal that is being laid before Parliament this week. A vote against would be preferable as a means of kickstarting an effective opposition, but I and thousands of other Labour foot soldiers could live with an honourable abstention.

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