Funding pledge for UK substitute to Erasmus+ welcomed

The commitment to pay for a British outward mobility scheme if the United Kingdom finds itself outside the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme at the start of 2021 was included in the UK government’s spending review 2020 policy paper published by Her Majesty’s Treasury on 25 November.

It came in the small print of the grant settlement for the UK Department for Education, which pledged to provide “funding to prepare for a UK-wide domestic alternative to Erasmus+, in the event that the UK no longer participates in Erasmus+, to fund outward global education mobilities”.

No mention was made about financial support for inbound students from abroad wishing to study in the UK.

The UK spending review outlined by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak includes a cash boost of £2.9 billion (US$3.9 billion) to core resource funding for the Department for Education for the period from 2020-21 to 2021-22, which, it says, represents an average cash boost of 3.2% in education spending per year since 2019-20.

Details about how much the UK alternative to associating with Erasmus+ will cost have yet to be revealed, with the British government saying it will “set out further details in due course”.

But the firm pledge to continue funding outward UK student mobility – whatever happens in the UK-EU negotiations – was greeted with relief by British university chiefs when they met the next day for the 2020 Going International conference on the future of mobility, hosted by Universities UK International (UUKi).

This is despite Universities UK’s publicly stated preferred option of British universities being able to stay part of the new Erasmus+ rolling programme, which covers 2021-27.

UUKi Director Vivienne Stern used her opening remarks to publicly thank the UK government for committing to fund “opportunities for students to spend time abroad” at what is a difficult time financially.

Professor Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University in Wales and chair of Universities UK’s Outward Student Mobility Board, also welcomed “the news from the chancellor that money has been set aside in order to fund the domestic alternative to Erasmus+”.

He praised all involved in the Go International: Stand Out campaign, which aims to double the number of UK students studying abroad as part of their higher education, for maintaining the campaigning momentum during the pandemic, and said consultations with the UK Department for Education during the COVID-19 lockdown showed “the government has been paying attention to what our asks are and what we think the new framework should look like”.

He told the conference that, while negotiations between the UK government and the European Commission are continuing, it was “anyone’s guess whether there will be positive or negative conclusions” and even if there is a deal it was “still not clear whether we will associate to the successor to Erasmus+.”

Riordan reminded delegates that the UK government’s declared position was “to be open to considering participation in some elements of the next Erasmus+, providing it is in the UK interests to do so”, adding: “We will have to see how that judgment is made and what the outcome will be.”

There is still “a lot to be cleared up” in terms of the potential substitute programme, including immigration requirements and the timeline for implementation, “but at least we do have it there and that’s a great comfort”.

He urged UK universities to “do whatever we can, so that if there is a transition from one scheme to the other we keep that as smooth as possible and, as we always do, keep the interests of our students in the forefront of our minds at all times.”

The message was reinforced by Anne-May Janssen, head of European Engagement at UUKi, and Naquita Lewis, senior consultant for the Erasmus+ National Agency at the British Council, in a special session at the conference on the future of European mobility and the Erasmus+ programme.

Janssen said the decision last month by the EU to add an extra €2.2 billion (US$2.6 billion) on top of the €21.2 billion originally suggested by the European Council to the Erasmus+ academic mobility programme for the next seven years would mean a higher fee for the UK to associate to Erasmus+ 2021-27.

With little time left to finalise UK association to the new programme, starting on 1 January 2021, it was still possible for a stop-gap system to be put in place “to bridge the gap to association” to the new Erasmus+ mobility scheme.

But even if a free trade agreement is signed before the end of this year, “it doesn’t automatically translate into association with the EU programmes,” she explained.

Hurdles to Erasmus+ participation

Among the hurdles still to be overcome is the gulf between the EU position of wanting the UK to sign up to the whole seven-year Erasmus+ programme and pay an association fee based on a calculation of GDP and the UK’s position of looking for time-limited association to just the mobility aspects of Erasmus+, known as Key Actions 103 and 107.

Should the UK government feel it is too expensive to buy into the whole programme and opt for a domestic alternative instead, Janssen said such a scheme was likely to fund just student and staff mobility, but it would be a global scheme and cover the whole of the UK.

“Much will depend on what kind of money will be available,” said Janssen, but it is envisaged it would cover all the devolved nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and provide funding for organisational and special needs support.

No details have been agreed on funding incoming mobility, but this “would be small, if any,” suggested Janssen.

UUK shopping list

UUK’s shopping list for the domestic substitute includes adequate funding to support growth in outward mobility and no gap in funding for student and staff mobility, along with flexible mobility options and continued exchanges with existing partners in Europe. They also want to avoid heavy levels of administration and reporting.

Janssen said UK universities should take care when marketing any future study periods abroad while it was unclear whether the country would associate with the next EU programme, and make sure they are not advertised as Erasmus-funded.

Universities should also make sure that students moving between the UK and EU member states are given the latest information about immigration regulations for short-term and long-term study abroad and work placements.

Janssen said UUK was pressing the UK government for a dedicated immigration route covering study and work placements lasting less than a year, adding that the cost for incoming students to the UK could be seen as “quite expensive” when the annual health surcharge and cost of a visa was included.

Naquita Lewis said the new Erasmus+ programme for 2021-27 would have a greater focus on making mobility a possibility for all and on supporting under-represented fields of study and cycles – an aim the UK shares.

While it would include a “strong and visible European student identity”, the new Erasmus+ programme will have “no geographical restriction” and blended mobility would become a key feature rather than the stop-gap measure that it has been during the health emergency.

The expectation is that blended and virtual mobility should help more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and become “a stepping stone for longer-term physical mobility”, said Lewis.

• A BBC Reality Check report on Erasmus after Brexit, published on 15 October 2020, said 16,561 UK students participated in Erasmus exchanges in 2017, while 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK under the mobility scheme.

Nic Mitchell is a journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities communication network, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support on a freelance basis for European universities and specialist higher education media.