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Farewell Erasmus – the perfect Brexit metaphor

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Just before Christmas the Prime Minister announced that the UK Government no longer intended for the UK to participate in the future Erasmus programme. This despite numerous public statements, including in Parliament, that UK access to Erasmus was never in jeopardy. This ends 30+ year of UK participation in a programme that has grown and developed into one encompassing the world, and not just in HE.

The print and social-media furore about the loss of Erasmus / creation of Turing Scheme created a glorious, polarised noise, much of which I did not recognise despite having worked with Erasmus and study abroad for a long time. Like fishing, its symbolism seems to be more important to the public than the activity itself. But departure from Erasmus was unsurprising, even if unwanted - the outcome was clear when Rishi Sunak's committed funds to a Domestic Alternative Scheme in his November 2020 Spending Review, even if the UK Government stated remaining in Erasmus was the ‘preferred option'.

The future therefore is Turing. Or is it?

As you might expect, I believe not joining the new Erasmus programme (2021027) is a mistake. Erasmus is more than an educational programme; the soft power it generated for the UK / UK HEIs should not be overlooked; the impact on and what it meant to individuals cannot be underestimated. Many Erasmus students are / have been academics at Reading, thanks to what Erasmus enabled. You cannot easily replace or replicate history. As Erasmus expands and develops, UK HEIs will watch at a distance - passive participants and beneficiaries, if at all. We will still send students to and receive students from Europe, but it will not be the same. However, the loss of freedom of movement and associated complications / costs arguably could have greater detrimental effect on the future European mobility activities, and this would have happened whether we stayed in Erasmus or not. We are learning this currently.

It is questionable how much Erasmus really meant to the UK HE sector outside of Study Abroad offices and language departments. UK HEIs were not as actively involved in the wider programme as other European nations e.g. Jean Monnet, European University Initiatives, capacity building and knowledge alliances etc; and in many subject areas the geographic interest is further afield. Erasmus access was either something the wider HE sector either seemed to take for granted, or was at least ambivalent about losing. Arguably what Turing now provides is what the UK HE sector valued most from Erasmus - money. Not the framework and consistency. Despite decades of complaints about EU bureaucracy, this is what I think will be missed the most in the future.

Irrespective of my opinion about the Erasmus decision, Turing must be supported, primarily to ensure that it remains in place.

A £100m is a significant financial commitment, especially considering the perilous financial situation created by the pandemic. But there is no assurance of Turing's longevity - the current commitment appears to be linked to the current Spending Review which is one year. The scheme will be dependent on Government (and Treasury) favour. How it will work in practice remains unknown - currently it is nothing more than a press release. But there is no longer a year-on-year guarantee of funding or consistency in format, principle, or emphasis. Staff mobility - a much overlooked part of Erasmus - is also now gone. There is added risk and complication in the system, something HEIs will need to adapt to and plan for.

It is important that Turing funding aims to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is part of our mission to create fair and equal access to opportunity, and this should include Study Abroad. Erasmus stated this also, so it is not entirely new. The wider range locations that funding might support will resonate with students who, outside of Languages, often look further than Europe as their preferred placement destination. The old and new Erasmus programmes could enable this also, albeit to different extents. But money is only one of a number of issues in HE that create barriers preventing participation (e.g. access, perception, engagement, curricula, family et al). And a funding scheme does not automatically generate opportunity. HEIs need to create and nurture opportunity. The unilateral funding Turing will not necessarily generate new reciprocal study abroad partnerships or increase existing activity; we will need give reasons for others to want to work with us. The social media notion that Turing could now enable access to Ivy League institutions is fanciful. Where funding opportunities are gained for some, they could be lost for others, depending on the detail. There are also reasonable questions as to whether the overall amount committed is sufficient to meet short-term demand, let alone if the programme has any permanence.

Hence Turing has potential, if it remains. But it should be seen for what it is - a funding scheme. As such, it cannot replace Erasmus. Institutionally we will need to work harder to ensure that the opportunities developed through Erasmus are not lost, combined with retaining and developing new global opportunities in a more competitive environment. We must make Turing successful to ensure the legacy of Erasmus is not lost, and so that we can continue to support as many future students as possible have excellent educational opportunities abroad as part of their degrees.

#SupportStudyAbroad

(This blog has been written by Marcus Dowse, the University's Erasmus and Study Abroad Manager)

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