Erasmus Minus

The news that the UK is to leave the Erasmus+ scheme for student exchanges shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly promised in the House of Commons in January 2020 that it wouldn’t happen and what he says is virtually guaranteed to be the opposite of the truth.

I quote:

There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. We will continue to participate. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will continue to be able to come to this country.

In a similar vein, the stated reason for this decision (“financial considerations”) is also untrue. (Contrary to popular myth the United Kingdom is not the most popular destination for Erasmus students; that is Spain.) The cost of participating in Erasmus is modest and the benefits huge for both incoming and outgoing students and indeed the relevant home and host institutions. The real reason for this act of vandalism is demonstrated by the announcement of a new £100 million Turing scheme that is one-way only. Evidently the UK doesn’t want any nasty foreign students coming here. Equally evidently the UK Government believes that other countries will gleefully accept thousands of UK students in their universities while not having the mutual benefit of an exchange programme. Above all, most young people in the United Kingdom did not vote for Brexit in the referendum and remain strongly pro-EU. To the Brexit Government that means they must be punished. Come to think of it, the Erasmus slogan (“Enriching Lives, Opening Minds”) is pretty much the antithesis of the UK Government’s isolationist stance.

It’s “interesting” (and, to me, sickening) that the name of Alan Turing has been appropriated for this new programme. Turing, I’ll remind you, was a man whose life was destroyed by the British authorities despite everything he did for the United Kingdom during World War 2. The (perhaps unintentional) symbolism is obvious. If any of the institutions to which participating students are sent via this scheme are in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, the irony will be complete.

According to the UK Government’s own numbers, the £100 million cost of the Turing scheme will support 35,000 students to study or work internationally. That works out at less than £3000 per student. How much will that pay for? In the absence of a mutual fee waiver (which is how Erasmus+ works) it seems it will cover only a small fraction of the cost of a year abroad. Not to mention the need to acquire a visa which was not the case for movement within the EU. Still, that probably doesn’t matter, as it is only the rich who are meant to benefit.

There are a number of interesting points about UK participation in Erasmus+ which may not have been fully thought through by the Johnson government. I know it’s astonishing to think that a Cabinet full of such stellar intellects might have missed something important, but in fact Higher Education is a devolved responsibility in the United Kingdom. What the Government says about Education policy therefore only really applies to England. Scotland and Wales could in principle decide to continue as members. Moreover, if the Turing scheme is administered through the Department of Education, appropriate funding should be passed to the devolved nations by the Barnett formula which they can spend on continuing Erasmus+ participation if they wish. There’ll be legal arguments of course, but on the face of it that seems to be the situation.

Students in Northern Ireland won’t have to worry, however, as the Republic has already offered to fund the participation of NI students, a decision as generous and politically astute as the English decision is petty and mean-spirited.

The decision to withdraw from Erasmus+ will make life very difficult for many UK Higher Education institutions as many run degree programmes that include a year abroad facilitated by the scheme. As of January 1st 2021 they will no longer be able to offer these programme. I know from my own past experience how long it takes to set exchange programmes, how much work is involved in keeping it going, but how rewarding the participating students find it. Tragically, all that will disappear in the New Year.

But there may be silver lining for Ireland. Students from the EU wishing to study in an English-speaking country are likely to be looking at Irish universities in increasing numbers. We already have quite a few at Maynooth (though not this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions); for information see here. I think there’s a strong case to exploit the British mistake and boost the involvement in Erasmus+ across the Republic.

I would very much like to do this in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Though a small Department, we are in a good position to develop more international partnerships because of our collaborative networks. Indeed, although it is the Christmas break, I today received two emails from colleagues abroad wondering if we would be interested in replacing UK institutions. I think we could offer a very nice option for students from Spain and Italy. The problem is that to balance the books we really need to encourage more of our own students to venture abroad. That is difficult because, in Ireland (as in the UK), only a small number of students studying Physics at third level institutions have proficiency in a European language (other than Irish). That may not effect the teaching too much, as many European universities do teach science courses in English, but for life in general it is more difficult if you can’t speak the local language to any real extent. For this reason, it may be better for us to target postgraduate rather than undergraduate students for such an arrangement.

That’s another job to add to my list for the New Year!

10 Responses to “Erasmus Minus”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “The problem is that to balance the books we really need to encourage more of our own students to venture abroad. That is difficult because, in Ireland (as in the UK), only a small number of students studying Physics at third level institutions have proficiency in a European language (other than Irish). That may not effect the teaching too much, as many European universities do teach science courses in English, but for life in general it is more difficult if you can’t speak the local language to any real extent.”

    I’m not sure whether English-language teaching in non-English-language countries is a good idea. On the plus side, English is the lingua franca of most of science, and so it makes sense for students whose first language is not English. It also makes it easier for students who don’t speak the local language. More-advanced students are perhaps more interested in the topics than in the language and culture. On the other hand, the language is an important part of an exchange experience, and that would suffer if teaching is in English. It is also important, in terms of outreach, to be able to talk about one’s work in the local language.

    On balance, it is perhaps best to have postgraduate teaching in English and undergraduate teaching in the local language, which is how it is done at some places. Nevertheless, I think that a two-week crash course in the local language, accompanied by lessons during the stay, should be a requirement.

    Is there any teaching of science in Irish? At what levels?

    • telescoper Says:

      My own experience fending for myself in Italy as a postgraduate student is that you learn the essentials pretty quickly if the alternative is starvation.

  2. In principle, I would have loved to spend a semester at a French university, improving my French as well as my physics and experiencing life in France. In practice, our degree was so pressured I don’t think I would have dared take the risk. Unless the semester content was exactly the same as our own, I would have been at a disadvantage on returning. It didn’t help that our final degree grade was split between third and fourth year.

  3. One thing I would love to see more of : Erasmus exchanges for a full semester for academic staff. This doesn’t happen nearly as much as it could, it’s a huge pity.

  4. Reading some of the reaction to the Erasmus news among a hardline cadre of conservative and populist commentators and politicians in the UK, never has the xenophobic roots of Brexit been so clearly visible. I was actually taken aback by the visceral antipathy to the scheme by some well-known Leavers in the UK. It was like they were celebrating the uncovering and end of a cultural Fifth Column in British society. Not something that has been openly in place for years and benefitted thousands of young people from across Britain. Like, it was genuinely presented in some quarters as a sort of EU brainwashing project, inculcating young British minds with the nefarious thinking of the Continentals.

    Instead they are now celebrating the proposed creation of a far more limiting scheme that they are describing in quasi-imperial terms; young British men and women heading overseas to do the good work of the empire among the notional Anglosphere. It just madness.

    I really do wonder what is going to become of Britain in the years ahead. There is a strain of blind self-destructivness that is quite astonishing to behold.

    • I would not take the comments on social media and in newspapers by ‘commentators’ as representing the voice of UK people in general. Empty vessels make the loudest noise (or something like that). People with extreme views – right or left – are always the loudest. Research would appear to indicate that people in the UK are no more or less racist than elsewhere in the EU. See:

      https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2019.00012/full

      • Oh for sure; that wasn’t a blanket condemnation of the UK population as a whole. But unfortunately the Brexiteers are in the ascendant, politically and culturally. They dominate the political and press agenda. And that is reflected in the opinions and commentary they are offering online and in the news media in the UK. You don’t have to search very hard to find the toxic stuff. And from very mainstream figures. Anonymous Twitter accounts they are not.

  5. There are other exchange programs run by universities that can replace Erasmus exchanges. But it would take time to set those up, and to do that with 1 week notice during the holidays might be a bit challenging. The new scheme may just have enough funding to make it viable for UK students, at least the wealthier ones. But for EU students to come to the UK could become very expensive for them because of visa and NHS costs, even for one semester. And those are not under devolved control. There is definitely an aspect of enforced isolation here for UK universities.

    I am unsure about the wisdom of using the name of someone so closely involved with the second world war effort, for an exchange program involving the EU. A bit more creativity would have helped. (Maxwell? Watt?) This scheme was clearly an afterthought.

  6. I haven’t read all 1200 pages, but it looks like Erasmus will still pay for students to come to the UK, as long as they come to Northern Ireland.

    Of course, who knows how much longer Northern Ireland, and perhaps Scotland, will continue to be part of the UK.

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