Erasmus+ uncertainty as risk of no-deal Brexit rises

Thousands of students could be denied government funding to study abroad in future if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal, Universities UK has warned.

A government technical notice published on Tuesday clarified that British students currently in Europe on Erasmus+ placements should continue to receive funding for the duration of their time abroad.

This was matched by a contingency proposal adopted by the European Commission on 30 January which, among other things, would ensure that in the event of a no-deal Brexit scenario, young people from the EU and the UK who are participating in the Erasmus+ programme on 30 March 2019 can complete their stay without interruption.

But these proposals require approval from the European Parliament and the European Council before they can take effect.

However, neither the UK notice nor the European Commission contingency proposal address the future of UK participation in Erasmus+ post-Brexit for students or academics who are not already participating.

Excluding the grants that have already been agreed, the UK government has not committed to providing any further funding for students planning to study in Europe in the case of a no-deal Brexit, Universities UK said.

The technical notice was published just hours before MPs, in a dramatic and conflicted session of parliament, voted first to oppose a no-deal Brexit but then for a negotiating strategy that increases the risk that it will happen.

That risk stems from MPs agreeing that Prime Minister Theresa May should go back to Brussels and try to negotiate an alternative arrangement to the ‘Northern Ireland backstop’ in the withdrawal agreement.

The backstop is a last resort insurance policy keeping Northern Ireland temporarily within Customs Union territory until such time as agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU is reached.

Its purpose is to prevent UK withdrawal leading to the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and potentially unravelling the 1998 peace agreement.

But Brexiteers fear it could leave the UK trapped in perpetual limbo because there is no way of ending it without joint agreement with the EU.

Increased risk

Since the EU has already rejected any change to the backstop, the strategy of seeking an alternative increases the risk that no deal will be reached with the EU on a revised version of the withdrawal agreement before the UK has to leave the EU on 29 March, under the terms of Article 50, which it triggered.

In practice, Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked but that might be a politically unimaginable decision for a pro-Brexit government to take.

Underlining the risk, within minutes of MPs walking through the division lobbies in Westminster, a spokesperson for Donald Tusk, the European Council’s president, said the backstop was “part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation”.

No-deal threats to higher education

A no-deal Brexit would pose many serious threats to UK higher education and research – deterring incoming academic recruitment and science partnerships, leaving questions over the future of the UK’s role in EU research programmes as well as its participation in Erasmus+ – and in response to the technical notice Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK chief executive, said the government must urgently reconsider its position on Erasmus+.

In the notice the government pointed out the reality that in the event of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ it will need to reach agreement with the EU for UK organisations to continue participating in Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps projects and is “seeking to hold these discussions with the EU”.

It added that if discussions with the European Commission to secure UK organisations’ continued ability to participate in the programme are unsuccessful, the government will engage with member states and key institutions to seek to ensure UK participants can “continue with their planned activity”.

However, according to Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, placements for around 16,000 students would be at risk if the arrangement ended.

Jarvis, while welcoming the clarity for British students currently in Europe on Erasmus+ placements, who should now continue to receive funding for the duration of their time abroad, warned that government has not committed to new funding for study abroad placements beyond this.

Impact on disadvantaged students

“This means thousands of British students could miss out on the life-changing opportunity to take on placements at European universities on the Erasmus+ scheme. Students find themselves caught up in this political turmoil through no fault of their own. In particular, this decision will affect students from poorer backgrounds and disabled students, many of whom rely on financial help to meet the extra costs of studying abroad,” he said.

“As a matter of urgency, the UK government must reconsider its decision and commit to fund 2019-20 study abroad placements in the event of no deal. Research shows that studying abroad boosts academic performance, and helps students from a range of backgrounds develop the skills and global networks they need to secure jobs in a successful global trading nation.”

Thomas Jørgensen, the European University Association’s senior policy coordinator and lead expert on Brexit, told University World News it is an unexpected and positive step that the European Commission has made its contingency proposal, given that it regards integrity as a red line, but it still has to be passed by members of the European parliament and member states, and guidance is needed on how to implement the measures.

“It is about ensuring that those participants who are in Britain and hopefully UK students who are studying in the EU on 29 March will know what happens tomorrow.”

He said that, as it is now more likely that there could be a no-deal scenario, it is important to “prepare seriously for it in the hope that it won’t be relevant”.

“The issue with preparedness is that you need guidance from national governments saying what it is they will do in terms of residency permits to ensure UK citizens in the EU can remain legal citizens.”

He said guidance from the Commission is also needed on the “nuts and bolts of how EU programmes will work, whether Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 or other programmes, when there is the famous ‘cliff edge’ Brexit. That would be extremely helpful for all partners to be able to plan.”

Jørgensen does not believe there will be a change of rules for Horizon 2020 at this late stage but says if the UK is going to be allowed to coordinate Horizon 2020 projects it currently coordinates, universities need to know how that will work. For example, what will happen to consortia that are no longer eligible because there are too few EU countries in them once the UK becomes a non-EU member or ‘third country’.

This story was updated on 1 February 2019.