Is the last-minute trade deal between the UK and European Union a disaster for student mobility – with Britain pulling out of the next round of the Erasmus+ exchange programme – or a bright new dawn towards fulfilling the goal of doubling the number of UK-based students studying abroad?

The big Brexit gamble appears to have paid off for now and both the European Union and Boris Johnson government can claim some kind of victory in avoiding a calamitous no deal final exit, even if a last-minute glitch over fishing quotas delayed signing off the free trade deal between the UK and EU for nearly 24 hours.

As I hoped, more than predicted in my last Brexit blog back in September, a last-minute “skinny” deal was done with the European Commission big wigs to allow trade without tariffs with our nearest, if not always dearest, neighbours. Something that can be built upon later, perhaps!

Is the last-minute trade deal between the UK and European Union a disaster for student mobility – with British students barred from Erasmus+ exchanges – or a bright new dawn towards fulfilling the goal of doubling the number of UK-based students studying abroad?

But chucked out of the window in the final scramble to get Brexit done before the December 31 deadline ended the transition period for EU departure was a pledge made by British Prime Minister Johnson in the House of Commons a year ago that there was “no threat to Erasmus” and that UK students would “continue to enjoy exchanges with our European friends and partners”.

broken promise? Yes, but not a complete surprise, and the blow was softened for the UK higher education sector by a commitment that the UK researchers will be allowed to participate in EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme, even if the terms have yet to be agreed.

Substitute for Erasmus

British university chiefs were also softened up by a funding pledge in the government spending review on 25 November that money would be found for a UK substitute outward mobility scheme should the country find itself Erasmus+ at the start of 2021.

That pledge was hardened-up in a Boxing Day announcement from the Department for Education that the substitute, to be called the Turing Scheme after the British wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, would be backed by over £100 million. This, it was claimed, would provide “funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021”.

If achieved, that would represent a significant rise in students from UK institutions going abroad for study or work placements.

Anne-May Janssen UUKi Head of European Engagement

Of course, not all UK study abroad students used the Erasmus+ route, but the latest EU data for 2017/18 shows that 17,048 higher education students from UK institutions did take advantage of the EU-funded scheme. One weakness of the Erasmus+ scheme has been the imbalance between outward and inward short-term exchanges, with 31,877 students from the other 27 EU member states coming to the UK for study and work placements that year.

The new Turing scheme appears to be just for UK outward mobility as Anne-May Janssen, head of European Engagement at Universities UK International, told a pre-Brexit trade deal briefing during the Go International 2020 conference in November. No details have been agreed on funding incoming mobility and any cash support “would be small, if any”, she said.

Contrast to Swiss solution

That’s in contrast to a Swiss scheme introduced after Switzerland found itself outside the last round of the Erasmus+ programme, with their “shadow programme” paying for inward and outward student mobility.

That’s unlikely for the UK substitute scheme as, despite Brexit, more students are still expected to want to study in the UK than British students willing to go abroad even for short-term study or work placements. 

The UK government would probably consider paying for mobility both ways too expensive, but it does leave a huge question mark over whether Turing is really going to be a replacement exchange scheme to Erasmus+ and not simply cash incentives for Brits to study abroad.

And with many Brexiteers in Boris Johnson’s government suspicious of all things European, more so after the marathon trade talks, the Turing scheme is likely to focus on encouraging UK students and universities to venture further afield to North America, South East Asia and beyond rather than simply look for exchange partners across the English Channel.

Fact Check

Universities UK International said in their latest Facts and Figures that 7.4% of all UK-domiciled full-time, first degree, 2018-19 graduates spent a period of their studies abroad. UUKi launched a campaign several years ago to double the number of British students gaining study abroad experience for all or part of their degree programmes. The five top destinations for mobile UK students who graduated in 2016-17 were France, Spain, the USA, Germany and Australia in that order. During students’ second year (2015-16) when the majority (71.1%) of mobility takes place, Erasmus+ accounted for almost half (49.2%) of all mobilities.

Recommended further reading:

·      The Erasmus student programme is about to become another casualty of Brexit, a LSE Brexit blog, by the pro-Europe academic Anne Corbett, who explains that Erasmus is about more than just study abroad and why the Brexit lobby detests some of its activities such as the Jean Monnet Activities.

·      New Turing scheme to support thousands of students to study and work abroad, press release from the UK Department for Education , 26 December 2020

·      The challenge of replacing Erasmus+ with the Turing programme by Nic Mitchell, University World News, 7 January 2021

·      Bust-ups and brinkmanship: inside story of how the Brexit deal was done, by The Guardian’s Brussels correspondent Daniel Boffey, which makes the free trade talks sound like a battle between two cunning football managers.

· European University Association (EUA) and Universities UK International’s common statement on the EU-UK agreement in which they welcome UK plans to associate to Horizon Europe, but regret the UK decision not to participate in the next round of the Erasmus programme.

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