Richard Lochhead is demanding “urgent assurances” from the UK government that Scotland will remain part of the Erasmus+ programme, which has higher participation levels north of the Border than elsewhere in the UK.
The call comes after a move to include membership of Erasmus+, funding temporary study, training or cultural exchanges overseas, in the EU Withdrawal Bill was rejected by MPs last week.
The UK government says it wants to remain in the exchange programme, but it will depend on the outcome of negotiations with the EU.
Lochhead said: “Every year, thousands of Scottish students, teachers and young people benefit from the popular Erasmus+ scheme, which gives people experience of other countries and cultures and helps build confidence and language skills.
“The UK government gave assurances that all options were open, but this worrying development raises the prospect that the door to this fantastic cultural, educational and sporting exchange will slam shut.
“There is broad support for Scotland continuing to benefit from the many social and cultural opportunities abroad, while welcoming EU nationals to our country, and I’ll be seeking urgent assurances from the Department for Education that people in Scotland won’t miss out.”
Scottish universities have participated in the Erasmus programme since its inception in 1987.
Proportionally more Scots now take part than from any other country in the UK. Between 2014 and 2018, 14,000 participants from Scotland benefited from the EU-led scheme, securing over €90 million in funding.
More than 2,500 people at Scotland’s universities had the experience of outward mobility for study or work through Erasmus in 2016/17.
“Our students really value the opportunities that Erasmus+ offers,” a spokesman for Universities Scotland said.
“Our economy benefits too as graduates bring back wider cultural awareness, global skills and networks to local businesses. The Erasmus scheme is set to expand further this decade, which presents a whole host of opportunities for member countries. We do not want Scots to miss out on this.
“The UK government must commit to continued study abroad funding, either through full association to the Erasmus+ programme or through a national replacement scheme.”
Chris Skidmore, the UK universities minister, has confirmed the government is still open to participation in the Erasmus+ programme and this will form part of negotiations with the EU.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus+ programme if it is in our interests to do so. The vote this week does not change that. As we enter negotiations with the EU, we want to ensure that UK and European students can continue to benefit from each other’s world-leading education systems.”