Three weeks ago, MPs voted by 344 to 254 against adding a clause to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that would have required the government to negotiate continuing full membership of the Erasmus programme after Brexit. Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Moran, who tabled the new clause, said it should have been a “no-brainer”.
The Erasmus scheme is a European Union (EU) programme that helps students study in other countries. It is also involved in vocational training and work overseas, as well as with teachers who want to work or train abroad. Currently, 53% of UK university students who study abroad do so through the Erasmus scheme (that is around 17,000), while more than 30,000 EU nationals come to the UK.
The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on 31 January, once the withdrawal agreement passes through Parliament and is ratified in the European Parliament. There will then be a transition period until the end of the year, during which the UK-EU relationship will continue much as it is now – including the Erasmus scheme. That means funding for programmes in the current academic year will continue as before.
But the Erasmus programme is run in seven-year cycles and the next one will be from 2021 to 2027 and even if the government decides it wants to participate in Erasmus after 2021, it may not be able to negotiate that in time for the start of the cycle, so there could be a period when such programmes are not available for UK participants.
All this at a time when UK students are increasingly considering the option of studying abroad, particularly since the introduction of higher tuition fees. With UK institutions now able to charge up to £9,000 per year for courses, the cost of studying at home is no longer even significantly less than the cost of choosing to go abroad.
In contrast to the £9,000 per year charged by UK institutions, studying Germany costs just over £4,200 per year, and France about £5,300. Looking at the figures, it would seem like studying in Europe was a bit of a no-brainer financially. Why graduate with close to £50,000 worth of debt if you can escape with £15,000 just by hopping across to the continent?
However, the comparison is not quite as clear-cut as it seems. While on the face of it a number of European countries appear to be cheaper places to study, in most countries there are no student loans available to UK students to cover the costs. Students who study at a UK institution are able to access loans that will cover both their tuition fees and their living costs. So although the overall cost may be higher than in some countries in the EU, the upfront cost is much lower.
Yet, it is not just the idea of saving money that drives students to consider looking outside the UK for an education. In fact, a recent survey found that for 33% the main motivation was actually an appetite for adventure. A further 26% cited a desire to build an international career.
A growing awareness among young people of the importance of international exposure was also recently noted by a British Council study, which found that one-third of UK adults that had not spent time living or studying abroad felt that it had harmed their career prospects. Among the under-25 age group, 54% believed that a lack of global experience was holding them back.
Whatever reasons young people have for wanting to study abroad, there is no doubt that it will be significantly more difficult if the UK no longer participates in the Erasmus programme.