Erasmus has been a true European success story. As of last year, the programme, which encourages mobility between European universities, has had over 9 million participants and is now operating in over 30 countries. The UK has been at the heart of this success – in 2015 it sent send 15,645 students abroad and received nearly twice as many – and those students who have participated in the programme have gained invaluable communication and intercultural skills, and enhanced their employability at home and abroad (for further reading, have a read of European Commission’s Erasmus+ impact study).
In light of this success, a particularly pressing issue is whether it will still be possible for EU students to study at UK institutions through Erasmus post-Brexit. Although no definite answer is available (this is a familiar story…), we can look at the following scenarios:
(1) Deal: the UK’s relationship with Erasmus if the withdrawal agreement is successfully negotiated
(2) No-Deal: the UK’s relationship with Erasmus if no agreement is reached by 29 March 2019.
If a deal is reached, we have to look at two time periods.
First, we must look at the UK’s continued participation in the current ‘Erasmus+’ programme, which ends in 2020. Prospects are promising because the joint report on the progress of the withdrawal agreement sets out the intentions of both the UK and the EU to continue the UK’s current participation in the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), of which Erasmus+ is a part. So, if you are an EU national looking to participate in Erasmus post-Brexit but before the end of 2020, and a withdrawal agreement is concluded, then it seems highly likely that you would be able to do so.
That was the good news, as after 2020, the position is much more ambivalent.
In theory, the continued participation in the MFF would provide the opportunity for the UK to conclude further association agreements that would secure the UK’s position as a ‘programme country’ in the successor scheme to Erasmus+, which will run from 2021-2027. Several non-EU countries, such as Norway, Turkey and Liechtenstein currently have this status. And there have been some positive signs in this regard.
For example, earlier this year the Prime Minister said during PMQ’s that Erasmus is one of the EU programmes that the UK would wish to remain part of, even once it had left the EU. However, she immediately qualified this by saying that a continuation would be part of the negotiations; and to be part of the programme, it is clear that the UK would have to obey all the relevant rules and contribute to its funding.
Problematically, this also includes recognising the European principle of ‘freedom of movement’ (even for non-members). This was seen in the case of Switzerland when, after a 2014 referendum that restricted freedom of movement, the country was excluded from the Erasmus programme altogether and had to set up its own costly student-exchange scheme (SEMP).
Consequently, if the UK continues to pursue a Brexit where freedom of movement will be severely curtailed, then it seems highly unlikely that full participation in Erasmus could be secured. At most, the UK could, like Switzerland, be a partner country that takes part in restricted elements of the Erasmus scheme (under certain conditions). Clearly, this would be problematic for EU students who would face a great deal of uncertainty about what their future opportunities in the UK would be. The same applies for EU citizens studying at UK universities, who would be restricted as to which exchange programmes they could participate in.
Of course, even this position - ambiguous as it is - would be preferable to a no-deal scenario, where there would be no settled arrangement for UK participation either in the current Erasmus+, nor in the following successor programme.
It is the case that the UK government, as part of its preparations for no-deal, has issued a guarantee that it will cover the payment of awards to UK applicants for all successful Erasmus+ bids submitted before the UK exits the EU, but it is not clear what the position would be for incoming EU students.
It is evident that replacing Erasmus+ on a merely national level would result in severe difficulties for incoming and outgoing students. These have been comprehensively outlined by ‘Universities UK’ here. For example, the UK could hardly remove all the legal and academic barriers between countries that are removed by Erasmus+. Even if it could, the focus on limiting immigration that has driven much of the Brexit debate, suggests that new regulations could be introduced to require that EU students acquire visas before they can come to the UK, for example. As international students are still part of the overall immigration numbers, it’s unlikely that they will be welcomed with open arms while the ‘tens of thousands’ immigration target still stands.
Similarly, Erasmus+ is the only scheme in the UK to universally offer monthly grants to incoming students and it is unlikely that a purely national system would be able to match this: even the Swiss SEMP model, which does provide some grants for incoming students, caps their funding in terms of sector and numbers of participants.
At the very least, there is a commitment that “those applying to courses starting in 2018-19 will not see any changes to their loan eligibility or fee status (…) for the full duration of the course" (see the British Council’s Website). But ultimately, this cannot obscure the fact that a no-deal would lead to EU students (as well as UK students) being deprived of the opportunities and experiences that Erasmus has been able to offer them. And, at least after 2019, the reality would be that those students could face higher tuition fees, a reduction in grants, restrictions on studying in the UK, restrictions on working while studying in the UK and, potentially, a lack of diploma/degree recognition.