Why has the UK ditched participation in Erasmus+?

The loss of UK access to the Erasmus+ programme post-Brexit has inspired widespread sadness and anger in the United Kingdom. The reactions have run the gamut of “Erasmus changed my life” to “it will blow a hole in the UK economy”, “many employers deeply value the kind of international experience the Erasmus scheme helps foster” and regret for losing out on the chance of “ensuring that we are viewed as an open, tolerant and welcoming country to the rest of the world”.

There has also been sympathetic international reaction to participation in Erasmus being dropped.

And that is without counting the support of all those academics who make Erasmus+ work. As one put it, you see the educational benefits to individuals and to your own professional practice. The dynamics of teaching and learning change for the better when students bring different international perspectives.

But the UK government is banking on its pro-sovereignty vision for a ‘Global Britain’ alternative to Erasmus+ so that students “will have the opportunity not just to go to European universities, but to go to the best universities in the world”.

The new programme is named after the British mathematician, Alan Turing, who spearheaded the successful wartime effort to crack the famous Nazi Enigma code (harking back to World War II). The promise of the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, back in January 2020, that Erasmus was safe has been forgotten.

This venture is launched with the claim that the Turing programme will be “a truly international scheme ... focused on our priorities, deliver[ing] real value for money and form[ing] an important part of our promise to level up the United Kingdom”.

For Universities UK, which represents universities to government, it is a huge relief that the Johnson government will finance outgoing mobility to the tune of £100 million (US$135.6 million) in the first year for 35,000 students at all levels of education.

By way of comparison and statistics from 2018, EU Erasmus+ funds for the UK covered 49,000 students (17,000 British outgoing and 32,000 coming in) and over 7,000 staff, at a cost of around €160 million (US$194.4 million). The detail can be found here.

A two-level game

In general there is little meeting of minds between Erasmus and Turing supporters. Even the story of how and why Erasmus+ fell out of the Brexit negotiations comes in two versions. Erasmus+ had been dropped by 14 December. It was then that Michel Barnier, the EU chief Brexit negotiator, told the European parliament that he had closed the chapter on Erasmus+ “because there is no agreement”.

The British side immediately claimed that participation in the next programme running from 2021-27 was still subject to negotiations. Yet 10 days later, on 24 December, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement revealed that the UK was going to pay to participate in the following big programmes: Horizon Europe, the EURATOM Research and Training programme, the fusion test facility ITER and Copernicus Programme, as well as access to the EU’s Space Surveillance and Tracking services. But not Erasmus+. Two days after that, the Turing Programme was unveiled.

The evidence suggests that the British were playing a two-level game all along. The EU was pursuing the tried and tested logic of negotiating third-country participation in its programmes for Erasmus+ and Horizon. Its starting point was that the UK needed to sign up for the whole seven-year Erasmus+ programme and to pay an association fee based on a calculation of GDP.

The cagey UK reaction was to say that it would “consider options for participation in elements of Erasmus+ on a time-limited basis, provided the terms are in the UK’s interests”.

A flawed argument

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has explained the decision to ditch Erasmus+ as being because the programme is extremely expensive.

Basing his argument on the fact that the Erasmus+ programme has been funding 49,000 students (17,000 British outgoing, 32,000 coming in) and over 7,000 staff, he presented the UK as “a massive net contributor to the continent’s higher education economy because over the last decades we had so many EU nationals, which has been a wonderful thing, but our arrangements mean the UK exchequer more or less loses out on the deal”.

The Johnson argument does not stand up. Even in the kind of pure accountancy terms which appeal to the government and some vice-chancellors, it should be noted that incoming students are consumers, contributing to local economies and thereby to UK GDP through consumption.

As the House of Lords warned back in 2019, an Erasmus+ substitute would be very costly to set up. The way Erasmus+ is managed, through university-to-university contacts, common rules and common services, provides economies of scale.

Brexiteer hostility

It is more fruitful to ask why the British government wanted an alternative.

Over its lifetime of 30 years, Erasmus – which in 2014 evolved into Erasmus+ – has made learning mobility easy, invented patterns of educational cooperation and extended its approach into sport and the youth area.

It delivers economies of scale for Erasmus mobility grants, joint master degrees, cooperation projects including capacity building in knowledge alliances with business, collaborative partnerships in the field of sport and policy reform with a focus on youth, the biggest victims of COVID-19.

The programme also funds the well-received European Universities Initiative.

Yet Brexiteers in and around the UK government have long hated aspects of the Erasmus programme. Their bête noire is the Jean Monnet scheme designed to develop EU studies worldwide. They class it as propaganda. They also dislike the European Solidarity Corps, a portal for volunteering and trainee organisations, offering opportunities for engagement in civic and environmental projects which, maybe to a Brexit ear, sounds like foreign aid.

The hostility can be traced back to a very small group of Conservative MPs who started their campaign for Brexit with opposition to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, based on an unwavering attachment to what they saw as British sovereignty. Their influence has been massive in Boris Johnson’s government.

What next?

But now that the Turing Programme is official, it will have to appeal to a broader range of opinion. So it may be a sign of the future that, among those who have been supporting a British alternative to Erasmus on rather different grounds from the Brexiteers, is Jo Johnson, the respected former universities minister, who happens to be the prime minister’s brother and was known as a ‘Remainer’.

Jo Johnson is a strong advocate of increasing higher education’s contribution to global trade. He has recently become chair of the advisory board of an international organisation called ApplyBoard which connects international students and recruitment partners to educational opportunities at institutions around the world. A part of its mission is ‘to educate the world’.

The members of its UK advisory board are all high-profile figures in British higher education politics: Sir Steve Smith, a former vice-chancellor and major figure in Universities UK, Nick Hillman, director of the hugely influential think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, and Mary Curnock Cook, former CEO of UCAS. Watch this space.

Anne Corbett is a senior associate at LSE Consultancy, London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom. An earlier version of this article appeared on the LSE Brexit blog.