by Dr Hywel Ceri Jones
Hywel Ceri Jones was the EU Commission’s Director for Education, Training and Youth when Erasmus was founded in 1987.
This article was first published by Yorkshire Bylines.
Internationally, there is widespread recognition for the impressive reputation and record of the EU’s Erasmus Plus programme as a tried and trusted system of international educational collaboration. But a growing number of voices are being raised, within the UK and externally, asking probing questions about the architecture and limited ambitions of the UK government’s intended replacement, the Turing scheme.
Sadly, the thin Brexit deal negotiated by the UK government included, at the last minute, an unnecessary decision to end the UK’s participation in Erasmus, after 45 years of active engagement by our institutions, staff and students. Over the years, its scope had been expanded beyond its original focus on higher education to engage vocational education, training and youth sectors as well as sporting cooperation.
This decision to abandon Erasmus was made in the face of the joint opposition of Welsh and Scottish governments. Over the last three years of Brexit negotiations they’d made the case consistently, spelling out the strategic value of Erasmus to their education, training and youth sectors – policy areas that fell under the competence of the devolved administrations.
The government’s Christmas Eve announcement that it would not continue to participate in Erasmus, coincided poignantly with the EU’s confirmation of an expansion to the programme’s budget to €26 billion for 2021–2027. This means the number of participants can increase from over 10 million students in 2020 to 14 million.
The boost of €1bn – allocated to the European Solidarity Corps scheme operating within Erasmus+ – will also enable the programme to scheme to broaden its reach further. Around 350,000 youth volunteers will now be able to engage on humanitarian and social projects abroad, individually or in teams.
This scheme gives a significant added dimension to the youth strand of the programme, which enables youth services and youth workers to engage in international collaborative projects. In contrast, the Turing scheme contains no such opportunity, at a time when young people need to be given a sense of hope for their future.
It is time for parliament to fully debate and examine the factual record of Erasmus+ – its architecture, scope and breadth of engagement straddling the education, training and youth sectors, together with its impact and benefits – alongside the proposed Turing alternative.
Parliament should also address ministers’ entirely false claims that Erasmus was elitist and provided inadequately for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It should also address the importance of this strategic choice for our young people across all four nations.
The ‘Global Britain’ label attached to Turing, with little supporting evidence, can in no way match the proven global reputation and appeal of Erasmus+. The latter is powered by the success of its joint Masters programmes and its pioneering and popular international credit transfer scheme, engaging more than 80 countries across the globe with thousands of partnership projects in place.
Turing’s limitation only to sending people out from the UK, will rob us of Erasmus’s inflow of staff, trainers and students from our partnering institutions and countries. Over the past 40 years this constant flow has brought new ideas to our classrooms, helped generate an atmosphere of ‘internationalisation at home’ on our campuses, and encouraged thinking around wider perspectives.
Erasmus+ has brought educational, social, cultural and economic benefits to our campuses and their communities and resulted in networks of friendships across the world. This has been an important source of ‘soft power’ and diplomatic value. Building a ‘global Britain’ on this basis would be far better than a one-directional scheme that has none of the welcoming character we would wish to project.
Erasmus guarantees the mutual recognition of periods of study abroad as integral and necessary parts of degree qualifications. This has been key to awarding many joint degrees by collaborating institutions. It has attracted generations of students and resulting in marked successes for their employability in the international Labour market.
The award of an Erasmus Charter (ECHE) sets the quality framework for participation in the programme – including the financial aspect that includes reciprocal waiving of fees. In contrast, no indications are yet available to confirm whether Turing will set conditions to ensure the quality and value of the student experience on a similar basis.
Erasmus also provides grants to staff and trainers to travel to meet with partners to prepare the curriculum, study and reception arrangements. This represents a substantial engagement of thousands of staff – academic and administrative – in developing lasting collaboration.
The government now accepts that its original conception of Turing was much too limited with its focus on universities only. Yet the latest scheme details still do not match the span of Erasmus+, or indeed its tried and trusted system of partnership building, developed painstakingly over many years, and the basis of its high reputation across the world.
The deep regret at this disappointing decision is felt throughout Europe. Many countries have offered to support moves to reconnect the UK in full. But so far, Turing seems to be targetting English-speaking countries. There is no mention of retaining the long-lasting partnerships that have so enriched the European continent, including the UK.
It is especially heartbreaking that our young people will be robbed of the opportunity to respond to two new elements of Erasmus+ – designed specifically to respond to the ongoing Covid pandemic. They illustrate well the continuing strategic adaptability and innovative intentions of the scheme.
The first call provides a budget of €100m for digital education, to support projects in schools, vocational education and training, and in higher education. These projects will enhance the quality of online and distance learning. It includes support for teachers and trainers and gives priority to inclusive digital learning opportunities.
The second new call sets aside €100m for ‘partnerships for creativity’. This is to support projects designed to extend opportunities in the cultural and creative sectors – developing skills and competencies, promoting the potential of young people and boosting the quality, innovation and recognition of youth work.
Both calls provide a sharp reminder of the impact of not including a youth strand of action in the Turing scheme.
A final regret is that the UK’s withdrawal comes just as the EU is planning to prioritise the global challenge of climate change through the Erasmus+ and Horizon Research programmes working together. The new ‘Greening dimension’ introduced this year will promote interdisciplinary environment-related and sustainability studies.
It makes no policy or economic sense for the UK in 2021 to be in engaged in one but not both of these worldwide programmes. Together they constitute the largest global international venture, combining teaching, study, research development and innovation.
As chair of COP26 in Glasgow later this year, ‘Global Britain’ should be driving exploitation of both programmes. Sadly, in exiting Erasmus, we will miss the benefit of the double impact that they could demonstrate by their complementary engagement.