'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Uncertainty. The buzzword of Brexit. What will happen? When will it happen? Will it actually happen? So many questions. I know there’s been a lot written about it and my musings may not add anything substantial to the debate, but I want to focus on a topic that has largely been ignored in the discourse both before and after that fateful day in June; something that is very important to students both in Britain and Europe. The Erasmus scheme. Or Erasmus+ as it’s now known – the EU’s funding programme for youth education and training between 2014 and 2020. A scheme which Britain could potentially be banned from should it leave the EU.
So this is a plea to Brexit negotiators: keep Erasmus. It is vital. It is worthwhile. And it would be a tragedy if it is not kept or replaced by something similar.
I am sat drinking a café au lait on a chilly French winter day, reflecting on the first four months of my exchange at Sciences Po in Reims, Northern France. Would I have ever ventured across the channel to study in Europe if I hadn’t received an Erasmus grant? In short, No. Money is what it boils down to. Although not a substantial amount, the €300 per month is helpful – going towards rent and living costs. The thought of future students opting out of studying in Europe because they will not get the same opportunity fills me with sadness. These past few months have been some of the best I’ve ever experienced.
But it’s been tough. Small every-day situations like going to the post office, the coiffure for a haircut, sorting accommodation, and even food shopping, proved challenging at first (particularly as my grasp of Français was not quite up to scratch – thank God for Google Translate). I have been pushed outside my comfort zone and there have been times when I’ve felt overwhelmed and humiliated and completely incapable. But I have become a more resilient individual because of it.
More than anything, an exchange is meant to be an enlightening, horizon broadening experience, and as a naïve girl from rural England, that is exactly what it’s been. In my opinion, I think a year abroad should be mandatory. Studying in such a diverse international environment has made me more aware of what is happening in the world – from Ukraine to Brazil and the US, I have spoken to people who have offered me a far deeper insight to what I could ever be taught in a classroom.
Hannah Keegan, 21, knows just how valuable a year spent studying abroad can be. She studied at Sciences Po Paris last year and describes the institution as being “academically rigorous”, which prepared her for the stresses of her final year at City University, London. “I think it puts you in a more international frame of mind, too. You meet people from all over, and have friendships you keep once the year is over… and hopping on a plane or train to visit them really doesn’t seem like a big deal whereas the year before it may have done.”
There have been no official decisions by the European Commission about what will happen once Britain leaves the EU. So far students from UK universities currently studying in Europe or planning to study there in 2017, will not be affected. But what about after 2019? Like most people, Aliya Sorgen, International Partnerships Manager at City University, London, is not sure. “I’m afraid all of us working within the field of Erasmus+ are as desperate as students are to know what the situation will be, but at this time we just need to wait.”
It seems we are playing a waiting game. Both David Davis, chief Brexit negotiator and Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities have refused to guarantee the Erasmus programme will be kept. Johnson himself knows the benefits of being able to study in Europe as a postgraduate student in Brussels and France. Other well-known people who studied on the Continent, include JK Rowling who went to France as part of her course at Exeter University, the author Dan Brown studied art history in Seville, and Tim Rice ventured to Paris for a year of study at the Sorbonne.
In the last few years there has been a surge of UK students choosing to study or work in a European country through the EU’s Erasmus programme. During the 2013-14 academic year, almost 15,600 UK students spent up to a year in another European country – up 115% since 2007, according to Erasmus statistics.
One British student who is determined to study in Europe during 2017 is Tim Drew, 20, who is studying History at York University. He would like to go to the University of Utrecht in Holland in order to gain life experience. But he says: “Coming from a family who do not have a lot of money, the Erasmus funding would be crucial for me to be able to live comfortably in a big city like Utrecht.” Drew says that if he was not able to get an Erasmus grant then he would look into every possible option to try to get funding through different means.
Drew is staying optimistic – and will not be affected next year – but there is no doubt that there will be less students from UK universities choosing to study in Europe if Erasmus is stopped; particularly as today’s students already have a large financial burden to bare. Billie Bradley, 19, is studying International Relations at the University of Nottingham and is currently on an exchange in France, she says the grant has been particularly useful “considering the state of the pound versus the euro post-Brexit, which initially made living costs slightly higher than expected”. She continues: “It’s such a shame because Post-Brexit, I think it’s more important than ever that students take the opportunity to discover new countries and expose themselves to different opinions and cultures, otherwise we risk becoming really insular.”
The great thing about Erasmus is that it is for everyone; not just middle-class gap yah types. it’s a way for students from poorer backgrounds to gain an opportunity that they might not have been able to access because of their social situation. It is an example of the EU helping to tackle urgent socio-economic problems such as youth unemployment, as well as encouraging young people to participate in democratic life within Europe.
I definitely feel more of a bond with continental Europe since beginning my exchange – through friendships fostered and a deeper interest in their politics and culture – a shame since Britain seems to be metaphorically floating further away. It was Stefan Wolff, the German political scientist, who in 2005, said that in around 20 years’ time Europe will be run by leaders with “a completely different socialisation from those today”. The ‘Erasmus Generation’: open-minded, forward-thinking, multicultural. People who feel tied not just to their country but to their continent.
So what does the future hold? If Britain is unable to keep participating in the Erasmus scheme after it leaves the EU then a solution could be to adopt the Swiss model. But Drew hopes that the people in charge of Brexit will see how valuable Erasmus is to students and be able to keep it in place. He says: “I think the experience gained abroad will help the future generation of workers in the U.K.” Indeed, the scheme has enriched countless lives over the past 30 years, it would be a shame for it to end – particularly at a time when ties between European countries are so crucial.
An edited version of this article was published on The Guardian.