One consequence of the Brexit decision is that our educational institutions will at some stage have to withdraw from ERASMUS+, the European Commissions’s scheme for staff and student mobility. Or so says the Guardian, in a report that has been widely circulated – and lamented – on social media. The Guardian quotes Ceri Jones, formerly the Commission’s Director General for Education, describing the UK exit from ERASMUS+ as “a tragedy of staggering proportions for universities throughout the country”.
As usual, the reality is more complicated. First, although Guardian story describes ERASMUS+ as a scheme for university student mobility, it is of course much broader in its reach, encompassing schools, adult education and vocational training. Second, the UK remains part of the programme until the actually UK leaves the EU. Third, if and when the UK does leave the EU, its membership of ERASMUS+ (and other educational and research programmes) can continue, if the UK and rest of the EU so decide. Fourth, the UK can replace ERASMUS+ with new partnerships, but with different countries.
So hardly a “tragedy of staggering proportions”. Of course, continuing membership of EU programmes or the development of new exchange programmes will cost money. The simplest solution would be to use the resources currently allocated to ERASMUS+ to fund the new schemes. In practice, I imagine that a few Vice Chancellors (including those publicly lamenting the UK’s departure from ERASMUS+) will then start lobbying to have direct control over the funds, and then promptly switch it to other activities. But that’s no reason for not having exchange schemes.
My own preference would be the development of an entirely new exchange scheme. I’m not a great fan of ERASMUS+, mainly because it is yet another case of public funding being directed towards the most privileged. A HEFCE report in 2010 found that UK participants were “disproportionately young, female, white and middle-class, and are academic high-achievers”. A subsequent House of Lords enquiry reported that “students from ethnic minorities; with a disability; who were older; or who had parents from a non-professional background, were less likely to participate in the Erasmus programme”.
These are not new findings, of course. And neither is it surprising that an attractive but costly education opportunity appeals most to the socially and culturally best endowed. Nor is it surprising that part-time students, those with caring responsibilities, and those with best reason to be concerned about racism are largely excluded.Then there is the whole question of language competence, which in the UK is tightly tied to the school which you attend, which in turn is of course socially biassed towards the middle class.
The House of Lords report also confirmed that the European Commission had limited data about the effects of the scheme, and didn’t even know much about who took part in it and what they did. Again, this had been known for some years.
As I say, then, ERASMUS+ is deeply flawed. I found it something of a tragedy (though not of staggering proportions) that the European Commission did not take the opportunity to reform and modernise it. But then an organisation that is happy with the Common Agricultural Policy is unlikely to be dissatisfied with ERASMUS+.
Leaving ERASMUS+ offers some attractive possibilities. First, it allows for a bit of attention to equity and justice when designing new programmes. Second, it allows for an expansion of bilateral partnerships, which might differ by country rather than all taking a standardised shape. Third, it allows for an extension of partnerships beyond the limits of EU membership (though it could certainly include EU members). Fourth, we could rebalance the distribution of funding, so that it no longer strongly favours higher education.
All of which would be no bad thing. If we recall the intentions of the scheme’s founders, European student mobility was designed to foster a European identity. It seems to have done that rather successfully among one part of our population, but it did little or nothing for those who are the losers from globalisation. The consequences are with us now.