Participating in Erasmus after Brexit.

In the first week of February a group of High Peak constituents collected 175 signatures for a petition in support of our continuing participation in the Erasmus+ programme. I presented the petition to our new MP, Robert Largan, at his surgery in Hope on 8th February, asking him to use his influence on Government to lobby for our continuing participation in the programme after the transition period ends in December 2020. Robert Largan said he was very much in favour of exchange programmes and supported the UK staying in the Erasmus programme, or its successor. He then took the petition to hand in to the Secretary of State for Education.

For those unfamiliar with the programme, Erasmus is an EU funded exchange programme whereby students can spend a period of time studying abroad. This experience enhances language skills as well as familiarising young people with other cultures and societies. Former High Peak constituents who have participated in the scheme as students have said the following:

‘It was the first time I really thought critically about the society I came from and the views I held. I made wonderful friends from across the world.’ “Edith”

‘This experience allowed me to fully immerse myself in the German culture and way of life. Without the financial support and infrastructure that the Erasmus scheme provides, this would not have been possible.’ “Holly”

It’s not just university students who benefit from the Erasmus programme: it also funds schools and FE colleges for work placements, staff development and collaboration with international partners, with very positive outcomes. In 2019 the Association of Colleges carried out a survey of colleges and college groups and received 33 returns. 100% of the respondents reported students’ improved self- confidence, 94% improved team-working, 91% improved problem-solving and 91% improved communication.

So what is the present position with Erasmus, given that we left the European Union on January 31st 2020? Can we continue to be part of this programme? The answer is YES. At present, during the transition period, we are participating in the programme as before, until the end of 2020. This fits nicely with the funding cycle of Erasmus which runs in a seven year cycle, with the current one, called Erasmus +2020, ending in December 2020. After that we could continue to participate in the next cycle, called Erasmus 2021-2027, as an associated third country. Some other countries are doing just that at the moment with the present programme, namely Turkey, Iceland, Norway and Serbia.

The Government has been considering the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus for some time now, and it will form part of the negotiations with the European Union which are just starting. It is also looking at alternatives, including a domestic exchange programme. The problems with that are that it would be very difficult in any national programme to replicate the partnerships built up over 30 years of Erasmus, never mind the costs of setting up new partnerships. The House of Lords European Union Committee in their report Brexit: The Erasmus and Horizon Programmes also found that ‘opportunities for people in vocational education and training would ‘stop in their tracks’ without Erasmus funding’, and that people with disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs and disabilities would be disproportionately affected—they currently receive additional funding to help them access the programme.

 Since we handed our petition in to our MP in early February, there have been two further developments which may be significant. The first is the sacking of Chris Skidmore, the Universities Minister, from the Cabinet. He was the Minister who gave evidence to the House of Lords Committee and is quoted in the report as saying, ‘We are still keen to be able to pursue associated membership of future (EU) programmes that begin in 2021.’ He has been replaced by Michelle Donelan. The second is the publication of the points system governing applications to enter the UK after December 2020 when free movement ends. As far as I am aware, there is no reference to students in the points system. However, the House of Lords report heard evidence that the free movement of Erasmus participants was a key principle in bilateral agreements with non-EU programme countries and indeed Switzerland lost full access to Erasmus following its 2014 referendum on free movement. So will the UK be able to participate in Erasmus as an associated country if the rule on free movement is strictly adhered to?

In High Peak we’ve made our views known: we think Erasmus is a brilliant programme and that the Government should do all in its power to see that our students can continue to benefit from it. But negotiations are starting and we need to keep a careful eye on our government’s stance so that we can hold them to account.

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