If Boris Johnson is serious about creating “a global, trail-blazing Britain” post-Brexit, he needs to make his mind up about UK participation in the Erasmus+ scheme.
As it stands, the UK Government is perched precariously on the fence over remaining in the EU’s student exchange programme as the transition to Brexit looms, saying that they will “consider options for participation in elements of Erasmus+ on a time-limited basis, provided the terms are in the UK’s interests”. However, just last week, the Department of Education announced that they were “preparing a wide range of options for future exchange programmes including a domestic alternative to Erasmus”.
What these alternative domestic arrangements entail remains to be seen, but it would be hard to imagine such a new scheme offering anything like the scale and scope of an already well-established international programme like Erasmus+. Crucially, if this Government is concerned about the “UK’s interests”, then collaborating in a scheme where students are 50 per cent more likely to gain long-term employment and enjoy rich career prospects is a no-brainer.
A recent report by Universities UK International highlighted the £243 million yearly boost to our nationwide economy and the benefits from and to the 17,000 British students who use the programme, including disabled and disadvantaged students, who might not be able to afford the chance to study abroad under different circumstances. Here is some actual “levelling up” in practice, to use another of Johnson’s favourite phrases, with students from all walks of life having access to the same experiences and gaining invaluable life skills by studying in another country.
Of course, for Johnson, the terms “levelling up” and “Global Britain” are merely slogans to be bandied about as a distraction from the chaos of Brexit. When I asked him at PMQs how safe the future of Scottish student’s education was in the hands of this UK Government given their prevarication on Erasmus+, I got a fatuous reply rather than any substantive reassurance.
Being wrenched from the EU’s programme of support in education, training, youth development and sport would be another huge loss directly against the democratic wishes of the Scottish people and our desire to remain in Europe.
Scotland has received around £60 million in funding from Erasmus in the last few years; since 2014 in my constituency of Dunfermline and West Fife alone, education and youth groups have received over £2m. The Scottish Government has affirmed that if Number 10 is not willing to negotiate the UK’s continued involvement, then Holyrood will explore using our own institutions to secure future participation and collaboration.
Perhaps what the Brexiteers that dominate this government most object to is revealed in an independent study from the European Commission from 2019, which discovered that Erasmus+ builds a sense of European identity and social cohesion. 90 per cent of students in this study felt that the programme had improved their ability to collaborate with different cultures and were more positive about the role of the EU in society.
Let’s face it, positivity about the European Union and ambitions for Brexit are not happy bedfellows. If the UK Government chooses to sacrifice this cultural and educational exchange for their domestic Plan B, then our universities and students will be more isolated than global, on the periphery rather than at the heart of important worldwide academic advancements.
Young people’s future should not be a gambling chip in the Brexit negotiation game; too much is at stake.
Douglas Chapman is the SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife
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