New hope for Erasmus+: Can it get back onto the agenda?

In 2025 the European Union and the United Kingdom are due to review the workings of key Brexit legislation, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement 2020. In the higher education and research sector, the recent UK-EU deal on Horizon has given hope in corners of the EU that a door might also be opening for the UK to get back into Erasmus+.

The UK is not currently acting with one voice. Wales, the home of Erasmus’ founder Hywel Ceri Jones, was quick to develop its own programme, Taith, for mutual exchange on the Erasmus model. Scotland is thinking about a scheme. Northern Ireland does not have to worry. It hooks on to the scheme in its neighbouring EU member state, the Republic of Ireland.

But in England there is near silence. The youth-backed campaign, Erasmus Plus Alliance, is a source of information, but not much more. There are no public figures proclaiming that now that the UK has better relations with the EU it is time to think again about the benefits of Erasmus. The cause is left to a few columnists and letter writers in the press who bewail the loss for current generations of the life-changing experience they once enjoyed.

As of today, even a possible victory for Labour in next year’s general election offers little hope that a new government would take up the cause. In a recent interview, David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, talked warmly of closer UK-EU relations in defence. But not a word about a programme that overwhelmingly interests the young.

Not too late?

Could Boris Johnson’s decision late in the UK-EU negotiations to walk away from the draft Erasmus deal agreed by negotiators now be too late to change? His slimmed down alternative, Turing, which exists and has funds, sharply reduces the opportunities available to young people.

It omits key Erasmus elements such as mutual exchange with mobility partner institutions, youth activities and sport, and a European voluntary service component, the European Solidarity Corps. It also abandons much of Erasmus’ sector-wide span from technical education to nursery school.

An initiative from the lower reaches of the European Parliament might just help get Erasmus back on the political agenda in both EU and UK circles.

It is masked in bureaucratic language as an ‘opinion’ of the European Parliament’s Committee and Culture, which is only empowered to present ‘suggestions’ to the high-status European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on International Trade on “the implementation report on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) (2022/2188) (INT)”, that is to say, preparing the ground for future TCA negotiations.

The document’s message is, however, clear. The rapporteur, Laurence Farreng, a French MEP who sits with the centre right grouping Renew Europe, calls out the TCA for only evoking the word education once, and that in relation to cyber security on which the population needs to be educated.

Everyone loses

The opinion, in 46 succinct points, highlights the much more significant issue of the losses for Europe and the UK of not doing a deal on Erasmus, and not thinking enough about how to compensate mobile young people for the loss of their freedom of movement.

Key examples, other than students at all levels, are young musicians and members of sports clubs. As the report makes clear, the losses are still wider. Employers are losing out on students who benefit from the exchange of knowledge and transferable skills. This is especially the case in the creative industries. Institutions of all kinds are losing out on diversity.

Teachers and administrators lose out too. The report expresses a particular regret about the end of cooperation with UK universities, among which there are “many considered among the best in the world”. The situation “is detrimental for research and academic excellence in Europe”. Compensatory bilateral arrangements cannot make up the gap. The opportunities are most likely restricted to favoured institutions.

The report is an indictment of the narrow ‘value for money’ approach adopted by the UK in the Brexit negotiations. The full Education and Culture Committee endorses the view that it would have been better for both the UK and the EU to have retained the multiple opportunities afforded by UK membership of the Erasmus programme.

Can the views expressed in the report gain wider support as the European Parliament sets out its agenda for TCA negotiations? It will be a tough call. As of now, those negotiations are being viewed by the heads of government and the commission as a technical matter for ironing out frictions in the existing agreement.

But there are many months to go before the TCA is reviewed. This opinion deserves to be better known. It provides a point around which supporters of the UK’s renewed participation in Erasmus could rally to develop a newly persuasive case.

Anne Corbett is a senior associate at LSE Consultancy. She and Linda Hantrais have recently co-authored ‘Higher education and research in the Brexit policy process’ in the Journal of European Public Policy.