The Erasmus student exchange programme is one of the few Europe success
stories everyone can agree on. United Kingdom risks exiting of the Erasmus program
after the vote to leave the European Union.
Brexit refers to the United Kingdom’s decision in a referendum on June
23th, 2016 to leave the European Union (EU). Brexit is an abbreviation for
“British exit”. The vote’s result was unexpected and roiled global
markets, bringing the British pound to fall to the lowest level against the
dollar in 30 years.
Erasmus is the main student exchange program in the EU and this year
celebrates its 30th anniversary. The name comes from a philosopher of Dutch
Renaissance-era. The Erasmus program was established in 1987 with 11 members,
including the United Kingdom. Since then, over four million students have had
the opportunity to study in another European country by funding their scholarsip
and waiving their tuition fees. In 2014, Erasmus expanded and included apprentices, volunteers, staff
and youth exchanges and even jobseekers. Meanwhile, the number of countries
involved has tripled over the years. Today, Erasmus has 33 full members,
including several non-EU nations such as Norway and Iceland. It also boasts
more than 160 partner countries. Nowadays one can speak of “Erasmus
generation”, there being over one million children born of couples who met
through this program.
The Erasmus program has enabled a whole generation to make important
experiences useful for the modern labour market, such as to learn what it means
to live and work alongside people from another culture and to develop the
skills and versatility. It is a generation that has gone on to find some of the
best jobs. After an Erasmus experience, the students acquire greater maturity.
They have a clearer sense of what their own institution has to offer. This
experience makes for a more mature relationship with their institution and a
clearer idea of what opportunities are available to them and what they can
expect. They are also much more pragmatic and improve the ability to recognize the
limits of what their institution can offer (Byrne, 2012).
EU and UK agreements: current situation
The leaders of the 27 countries of the European Union, meeting on 15th
December in Brussels, acknowledged that “sufficient progress” was
made on the three points of the negotiation on the exit of the United Kingdom
from the EU. These points concerned the rights of European citizens in Great
Britain, London’s financial obligations to the Union and the border between
Ireland and Northern Ireland. All
problems have not been resolved in this meeting, but the second part of the
negotiations has begun, the one on future relations when the United Kingdom
will be outside of a united Europe, about trade, security and other sectors.
The second phase will start in March, and attention will be focused on
the duration and modality of a transition phase (to be agreed between the two
parties) starting on March 29th, 2019, when Britain will formally leave EU. In
that date, Britain will not leave the EU at all, in fact it will continue to
enjoy the benefits and respect the laws for at least another two years (the
transitional period), therefore until March 2021.
It is a necessary transition time to give the business and other sectors
to prepare for the new regime, to understand what will have to change in the
relationship between the Gb and the EU and what will remain intact. One
consequence of the transition is that the Erasmus university exchange program
will remain in place at least until the end of 2020. It is possible that the
negotiation will decide to keep it even after Brexit (Franceschini, 2017).
implications and perspectives
About 16,000 British students spend a semester or year abroad as part of
the Erasmus program each year. The most popular destinations are France, Spain
and Germany. The number of UK students leaving for an Erasmus experience is
increasing, as many universities in Europe offer English language modules,
which helps to increase the number of UK students able to participate even if
they do not have previous language skills. While students try to add
distinctive character to their CVs, the number of participants in the UK has
For example, the exchanges between Italy and the United Kingdom that
involved Italian students (for study and training) from 2007 to 2015, says
Indire (2016), have grown by 80%, with an average annual increase of 11
percent. In 2007, Italian students leaving for the island were almost 1,500,
while in 2015 they increased up to 2695. In 2014/2015 the United Kingdom ranked
fourth among the most popular countries for study reasons, after Spain, France
and Germany, while on the training front, after Spain, the second place in the
selection includes the British companies that host 1,303 trainees, with an
increase of over 40% compared to 2013/2014.
The United Kingdom is a destination much loved by teachers: according to
Indire, it is the fifth most quoted for teaching trips (after Spain, France,
Germany and Poland) and the third for training trips, involving both professors
and technical-administrative staff.
According to the latest data available at European level on higher
education (2013/2014), explains the Indire (2016), the United Kingdom is one of
the favourite destinations of European university students under the Erasmus +
Program. The British state has accepted 27,401 students from the other EU
countries, 25% of whom are French, 16% are German, 15.4% are Spanish and 8.5%
Also, the Erasmus program depends on the exit agreement between the UK
and the EU before the UK leaves on March 2019. There is the possibility that
the United Kingdom will continue to be part of the program until the end of the
current program (2014-20), with the creation of a separate agreement.
Erasmus is an EU program and established by EU law. Whether or not the
United Kingdom continues to be part of the post-Brexit depends on the exit
agreement between the UK and the EU.
Other non-EU European countries are part of the Erasmus program
(Iceland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Norway,
Turkey) as permitted under Article 24 of the Erasmus regulation. This could
therefore be an option to replace the Erasmus program after 2020.
The UK will need to contribute to the financing of the programme and
obey all the relevant rules without having the opportunity to influence them.
The case of Switzerland is instructive: Switzerland, which has never
joined the EU, used to be a full member of Erasmus. In 2014, Swiss voters approved
a more stringent and strict referendum on immigration. As the result violated
EU freedom of movement rules, Brussels suspended Switzerland’s participation in
Erasmus and demoted it to a mere partner country. In order to allow mobility to
continue nonetheless, Switzerland set up its own student exchange scheme, the
SEMP (Swiss-European Mobility Programme). This is based on a series of
bilateral exchange agreements and it provides students receive a scholarship
instead of an Erasmus grant.
The future participation of the United Kingdom could therefore depend on
the commitment to give free circulation to researchers and students, but the UK
government seems to remain loyal to the end of free movement in the
With only very detached participation, or no formal agreement with the
EU on Erasmus, universities would be able to form bilateral agreements with
European universities. This is, after all, how UK universities exchange
students with institutions elsewhere in the world.
These agreements, however, operate without providing funds to students,
who must cover their own expenses. This is likely to prevent low-income
students from easily participating in the Erasmus program, and in the same time
the mobility guaranteed by the agreements between the countries within the EU
of the Erasmus program would be affected. Essential mobility for the future job
search and the future economic needs of graduates.
The argument that the UK contribution to the EU budget, which covers
Erasmus can be simply diverted to a national scheme, does not take into account
the costs of setting up a parallel system, as the Swiss example shows.
A solution for the UK government can be the replacement of funding
allocated for participation in the Erasmus program in the United Kingdom (€ 113
million in 2015) to give students the opportunity to participate on the same
basis. No guarantee has been made in this regard.
On the universities side, the administrative costs of individually
negotiated grants are much higher as the Erasmus program provides a commonly
agreed contractual framework.
One consequence of this could be a lower demand from EU students to
choose the UK as a destination for their Erasmus. This would be a negative
aspect for both students and universities in the United Kingdom (Cardwell,
The UK government’s view of a new “Global Britain” must surely include
equipping graduates and young people with the cultural ability to understand
the world beyond national borders of the UK and plug the post-referendum skills
gap. Probably one of the most effective methods are exchange programs. Ruth Sinclair-Jones,
Director of the Erasmus+ UK National Agency, said that the priority should be
to try to make sure that the UK can stay fully participating in Erasmus+,
because of the benefits to everyone, not just the UK.
The SEMP (Swiss-European Mobility Programme) could be a positive model to
be imitated in the United Kingdom. However, British universities will continue
to attract students whatever happens, in part thanks to the English language.
It must be considered that Switzerland has now approved legislation that
has reduced the imposition of immigration quotas, thus mitigating the
referendum result. That compromise allows it to start talking with the EU to
There are still the legal aspects that should not be underestimated.
Let’s be clear: being in Erasmus means accepting freedom of movement. With
Downing Street pushing for a “hard Brexit”, this scenario appears
Brexit could cause a significant reduction in the number of students
from all over Europe who choose to go to the UK to continue their studies. One
cause could be the increase in tuition fees, as EU students could be treated as
international students. Another cause could be the major difficulties
concerning visa practices. This could cause a decrease in the free movement of
United Kingdom students trying to avoid high school fees and deciding to
study in other European countries may lose this possibility, considering that
tuition costs increase outside the UK.
The visa process is likely to become more complicated and less
attractive for students who are looking for the opportunity to live abroad and
experience other cultures while studying.
The cultural and educational enrichment of Erasmus has been so
significant that it begins to increase the concern about what the future holds
post Brexit. Once Britain leaves the EU, the access that British students could
have to this programme looks very uncertain.
Britain could face exclusion from this program entirely, although
students currently using the programme are not at risk and there is some hope that
membership of Erasmus could be maintained as part of EU negotiations.