Monday, 8 February, 2021 - 16:42

UK’s departure from the Erasmus+ programme

The UK government’s decision to abandon the Erasmus+ programme is disappointing news for many people, but even ignoring the emotional aspect, it still strikes me as an odd, illogical choice.

I was lucky enough to benefit from the scheme in 2017; after two years of studying Spanish at university, I spent my third year working as an English teaching assistant in the north-west of Spain, in the region of Galicia. The experience was pivotal. My first month in the country was nerve-wracking, stressful and full of misunderstandings - both cultural and linguistic - that made even the smallest tasks, like getting a bus ticket, overwhelmingly arduous. But then, suddenly, it all became easier. Before I knew it, I was halfway through my time, having made friends and still meeting new ones, dealing with bank accounts and bills in a different language with (reasonable) self-assurance and learning everything I could at my allocated school. That is not to say that it was entirely plain-sailing through to the end but navigating through the rough patches made completing the year all the more gratifying. The most tangible skill I gained was the significant improvement of my spoken Spanish, but more importantly, from my perspective, I arrived home with more confidence, awareness and empathy than I had left with (though admitting to these positive changes defies all my naturally British self-deprecating tendencies!). I was less timid, more communicative and had developed a level of resilience I would never have attributed to myself. At no point had I specifically focused on altering these characteristics, but the environment had encouraged, or, perhaps more aptly, forced a change. As with many things, all students’ experiences of exchanges are different. Some are, unfortunately, fraught with difficulties, and for others, their time was so enjoyable that they return immediately after graduation, as several students from my class did. However, despite this, you would be hard-pressed to find a single person who has completed any length of Erasmus+ placement and gained absolutely nothing from it. It is an inexcusable cliché but the programme unquestionably ‘broadens horizons’. 

Meeting people is an important aspect of this process. One key element of Erasmus is giving its participants the chance to engage with others from all over the world. Vigo, where I spent my year, is a medium-sized city on the Galician coast and it is far from the most popular Erasmus destination in Spain. Yet, in a short time there, I made friends from all over the world: Canada, Venezuela, Senegal, Hungary, Colombia and fourteen different US states. I shared a flat with students from Brazil, Belgium and Italy, meaning six languages were spoken within our small living space. Moreover, the crucial part is not only meeting those who become close friends, but also increasing the interaction with people whose perspectives, opinions or politics differ from your own. This exposure can be just as constructive in improving understanding, empathy and tolerance, an important feature of the Erasmus legacy. 

The scheme’s impact should not be underestimated. Its effects can be, with no hint of melodrama, life changing. The European Commission estimates around 1 million babies have been born to Erasmus couples since the programme began in 1987! Moreover, their surveys have found that 40% of Erasmus students go on to work abroad after graduation, with an unemployment rate that is 23% lower than average. In fact, 92% of employers added that they actively seek out candidates with personality traits boosted by an Erasmus exchange (curiosity, tolerance and communication skills to reiterate a few).

By abandoning the scheme, the UK is depriving its students of options, especially for those whom without the funding, such experiences would not be possible. Yes, there is a proposed replacement but it will offer less financial aid and potential incoming students from other European countries will not be granted any benefits. There is little sense in substituting a functioning system for one that serves fewer people while damaging well-established partnerships. It is incredibly expensive to study as an international student in the UK without financial aid; tuition fees alone cost between £10,000 and £26,000 annually for an undergraduate degree, with medical courses stretching up to £58,600. Abandoning a reciprocal agreement will greatly affect the country’s diverse university communities and restrict the futures of young people across the continent. 

The UK may be leaving the EU, but it is still part of Europe, even if only geographically in the minds of select groups. Choices like this are breaking down fundamental relations and isolating us further. By rejecting a programme like Erasmus + that fosters diversity and international connection, we are sacrificing all the proven benefits and undoing years of progress. It feels like the government is cutting off its nose to spite its face, just to prove a point and, unfortunately, the UK as a whole will be poorer for it. 

 

Written by Harriet Thornley
All the thoughts and opinions of this article are of the author. Click here to read ESN's statement regarding this subject.

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