Written by Laura May Bailey
Withdrawing from the Erasmus scheme as part of the Brexit deal highlights, yet again, the failings of the UK government when it comes to young people. From the disastrous handling of the GCSE and A Level results in the summer, to failing to provide free school meals to the most vulnerable children, the Conservatives continue to underestimate and betray the young because they are able to rely on older generation to support them.
Since the 1980s, the UK has been a part of the European wide Erasmus scheme. It has not only provided incredible opportunities for British students to study across Europe, from Iceland to Turkey, but has also facilitated research and allowed thousands of European students to experience British life.
It is a programme very close to my heart – one that I believe in passionately and hoped future generations of students would be able to enjoy.
My own Erasmus year was the highlight of my undergraduate degree. Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, I studied Danish history, culture, and language. Most importantly, I met some amazing people from all over the world and gained a wealth of new perspectives that have shaped the person I am today.
I was lucky enough to travel all over not just Denmark, but the whole of Scandinavia. Travelling by train for 21 hours from the south to the very north of Sweden in January to see the Northern Lights, feed reindeer and hike in -20 degree weather is one of my favourite memories.
It was not just a year of travel though. Learning the Danish language and volunteering in a charity café, as well as making lifelong friends from all over Europe has undoubtedly increased my confidence and I bring up my experience proudly at job interviews.
From 2014 alone, over 900,000 UK students have benefitted from Erasmus funding and for many, like me, it was a once in a lifetime experience. The opportunity to completely immerse yourself in a different culture, to study and live in a foreign country, is invaluable.
The benefits of an international year reach far beyond the immediate chances to travel. Erasmus students have an advantage in job hunting, with unemployment rates in Erasmus graduates 40% lower than those who have not studied abroad. Even more excitingly, 40% of Erasmus students have spent time living in a different country after graduating, with 93% considering it in the future.
With the government emphasising how Brexit will be the start of a new, Global Britain, it is sadly ironic that they are withdrawing from one of the most important forums for cross cultural exchange and friendship.
There are a wealth of further statistics highlighting the benefits to student employability, confidence and even the likelihood of having a foreign romantic partner. It is undeniable that, for those who have the desire, spending time abroad is beneficial for the future.
What makes the Erasmus scheme stand out from other study abroad opportunities is the grant, which is received in addition to student loans. This means that students from less economically advantaged backgrounds can seize this opportunity to say yes to travelling and enjoy life there without worrying as much about money.
Being in an Erasmus mind, inspired by new experiences, allows you to make the most of opportunities that would not be possible from home. Similarly, not having to spend thousands of pounds simply on the plane ticket to arrive at your destination leaves many more opportunities for travel.
For example, I was able to make the most of cheap train fares to travel from Denmark to Sweden and Germany. I would not have been able to do this without living in Denmark already as my budget would have been exhausted simply travelling from the UK.
It is somewhat encouraging to hear that the government is proposing a replacement programme, the Turing Scheme, which will aid students with studying across the world, rather than just within Europe. However, students with family or health commitments in the UK are often more comfortable spending a year in Europe where they are just a couple of hours and an affordable flight away from home.
While the Turing Scheme sounds somewhat positive on paper – pledging extra help to students from a range of backgrounds – this government does not have a track record of keeping their promises, helping young people, or supporting the less well off. The Scheme is, as yet, unconfirmed, and with the existing impact of Covid-19 and Brexit on opportunities to travel, it is irresponsible to experiment and create a new programme that could negatively impact thousands of hopeful students.
It is, of course, also a worthwhile experience to study and live abroad in the United States, Brazil, China, or any other country. Friends who spent their year in Canada or Australia had similarly enthusiastic tales to tell of travel and culture. But the whole of Europe is just a short journey away, people with whom we share so much history but also have such diversity.
Losing access to this programme will be incredibly damaging. Not only to the UK students wishing to study in Europe, but to the thousands of European students who wished to experience British culture. While the Turing Scheme seeks to fund UK students studying abroad, both in universities and vocational subjects, it will not be an exchange. There will be no support to encourage EU students to come to the UK.
At a time when news about the UK is dominated by Brexit and sometimes xenophobia towards the rest of Europe, I find it incredibly disappointing that students from the EU won’t be able to live and experience the many more positive and friendly side of British culture.
Laura May Bailey is a master’s student of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. As well as having a passion for museums, she is also interested in traveling, history, and literature. You can find her on Instagram here: @laura_may_bee
Images from Unsplash