Erasmus: The government fails students. Yet again.

Student reading alone in library

By Florine Lips

As part of the Brexit deal announced at the end of last year, the UK is withdrawing from the Erasmus programme. Although a replacement programme has been announced, it looks unlikely to match up to what Erasmus+ has offered UK students for 33 years.

“There is no threat to the Erasmus programme,” Boris Johnson assured Parliament, and the UK’s student population, in January of last year. For 33 years, the programme has been offering young people the chance to study and work in other European countries, with over 200,000 students taking part annually. Ever since the Brexit vote in 2016, the future of the programme has been at risk, with MPs voting down an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill ensuring its survival early last year. And now, with the transition period officially over, the fate of Erasmus+ for British students is sealed: the UK will no longer participate in the programme.

What will we lose?

Take it from a current Erasmus student: this is a big loss. Erasmus+ is not just a way for modern languages students to complete their required year abroad, it is a unique and highly valuable chance to immerse yourself in another culture and learn about it through active participation. I will be one of the last UK students to take part in the scheme, and, half a year in, I’m already immensely grateful for what it’s offered me: I’ve learnt more about the language nuances and cultural wiring of Spain than I ever could at university in the UK. I’ve met students from all over Europe, all from different backgrounds and with varying perspectives on, say, their country’s handling of the ongoing pandemic.

Erasmus+ offers young people the chance to see the world from a new perspective, to lay the groundwork for potentially global careers, supported by a scheme with EU-wide recognition and sufficient funding. It can foster international friendships and life-long ties to your chosen country. And anyone can take part, allowed for by EU funding – additional grant allowances mean it is particularly beneficial to those who might not have been able to go abroad otherwise. Between 2014-20, 3.7% of young people living in the EU took part.

A replacement?

It is looking like there will be a replacement programme, but initial feedback has been lukewarm at best. Set to be called the ‘Turing’ scheme, the government’s new programme will provide 35,000 students the opportunity to study or work abroad as of September 2021. It will aim to offer placements not just within Europe, but globally. Critics have noted, however, that the programme falls short of its predecessor in more ways than one. It already seems underfunded, and it doesn’t make provisions for students to come to the UK, offering no incentive for European universities to take part. Fundamentally, it lacks the ‘brand recognition’ and EU-wide participation of the Erasmus programme, and will not match up to what Erasmus+ continues to offer students of 33 countries around the EU.

With an estimated £2,800 of funding per student, it will not provide disadvantaged students with extra support to be able to realistically take part in the scheme, either. Erasmus+ has been criticised for the fact that disadvantaged students don’t make use of the programme as much as their well-off counterparts do, but progress is being made to correct that – in May of last year, they committed to building on inclusivity in all aspects of the programme. It is unlikely that the Turing Scheme will even get off the ground by September of this year, let alone offer anything close to what Erasmus does.

So, what does this mean for British linguists?

“Britain needs linguists for its prosperity, security, diplomacy and defence,” John Worne, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Linguists wrote in a letter to The Times last week. Supporting the study of languages should be a no-brainer for the UK government, and yet, the failure to commit to Erasmus shows anything but. There is no doubt that the loss of Erasmus will be hugely detrimental to the future of modern languages in the UK. Nicola Sturgeon referred to it as “cultural vandalism”, and academics across the country have expressed similar levels of outrage, with Peter Ricketts, member of the House of Lords and former ambassador to France, calling it a “mean-spirited decision” from which “those too young to vote in the referendum will be the ones to suffer.”

The loss of Erasmus+ is disappointing, but it does not have to be the final curtain for the study of modern languages in the UK. The government can, and should, do much more to instil the value of multilingualism in this country. By committing to an effective replacement programme, and taking on board the criticisms of those with authority on the subject, the government can reassure a future generation of students that modern languages are still as valuable as ever. Even more so post-Brexit. If they fail to do so, they will further cut off the UK from the rest of Europe, putting at risk any semblance of a future relationship with the EU. In short: invest in linguists, because post-Brexit Britain will certainly need them.