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The Crying Shame Of Erasmus: Opposition To Exit Gains Momentum

The UK gained a huge amount rom Erasmus, encouraging talent from across the world to visit the UK , and often stay, and for our school children and students to learn from foreign cultures. Opposition to our disgraceful exit is mounting. Martin Cumella reports

Last December the government announced its trade agreement with the EU and as a part of this, it’s withdrawal from the EU Erasmus + programme. This was despite the fact that 12 months previously the Prime Minister had told the House of Commons that ‘ There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme’. The government initially argued that it’s ‘last minute’ decision was on the grounds of affordability but to sugar the pill it announced the replacement of Erasmus with the ‘Turing’ programme which is due to begin in September 2021.

Erasmus

From the moment that these decisions were announced there was an outcry from schools colleges and universities which has been rapidly gathering momentum. Erasmus, which was established in 1987, is widely regarded as having been highly successful in promoting student mobility within and beyond the EU, delivering 4 million mobility placements since it’s inception, as well as promoting knowledge transfer, and new curricula and learning methodologies. It’s network includes not only 27 EU member states but also 6 further full non EU programme countries (Norway, Iceland, Serbia, Turkey, Liechtenstein and North Macedonia) and 160 additional partner countries ranging from Eastern European countries such as Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Russia to Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon to Asia, Africa and as far afield as Japan and Australia. In contrast, the government’s Turing scheme, which is being promoted as a more global alternative has no partner countries at all.

The Erasmus student mobility programme benefitted around 55,000 learners in it’s last full year including students at schools, colleges and universities participating in study and work experience placements varying from a few weeks to 12 months. Educationalists refer to the overwhelming evidence of the benefits resulting from this, both for individuals for whom the experience can be life changing, and for the UK as a whole to which the programme has brought educational, social, cultural and economic benefits and the ‘soft power’ associated with them. The programme also guarentees mutual recognition of periods of study abroad as part of vocational and degree qualifications.

Erasmus has also supported thousands of strategic partnership projects involving partner institutions in at least 3 countries working together to develop innovative curricula and learning methodologies. Lancaster and Morecombe College currently has 11 of these projects and the National Star College in Cheltenham which specialises in work with SEND students has used these projects to develop partnerships in 12 European countries to look at new ways of working with SEND learners. None of this work will be supported through the Turing programme.

Keys to the success of Erasmus have been its partnership model with funding allocated to all partners involved in either mobility or strategic partnership projects, incentivising all to participate, its funding of projects over 2 to 3 year periods enabling partners to plan and deliver projects effectively and its support for knowledge transfer/developmental projects in addition to student mobility so that staff and their institutions can learn from each other and develop new learning products relevant to changing learner and labour market needs.

The Proposed Turing Programme

The Turing programme was announced without prior notice or consultation on 24th December 2020.The decision was primarily justified by the alleged high cost of Erasmus ; Turing has been allocated £105 million for an initial 12 months only and it is claimed that this will fund 35,000 outgoing (but not incoming) students and therefore represents better value for money though numerous experts have questioned how this figure has been arrived at.

However there are clearly  major design flaws in Turing in addition to its lack of an international network comparable to that of Erasmus including;

  • It only funds outgoing UK students in mobility projects and there is  no funding for partner institutions in other countries to support incoming students. This is likely to fundamentally undermine the ability of UK based schools, colleges and universities to establish or maintain partnerships which are currently based on exchanges and reciprocal funding. With no funding available to them, existing partners in other countries are likely to look elsewhere for partners in other countries who can access funding through Erasmus. The loss of incoming students will  also have a negative impact on the UK economy which a Universities UK report estimated to be equivalent to the loss of £243 million per annum.
  • A major reduction in the funding allocation compared to Erasmus (approx £74 million in the first 12 months) and funding only being provided for an initial 12 month period which will undermine efforts by UK institutions to create meaningful partnerships abroad.
  • No funding for Strategic Developmental projects currently funded through Erasmus through which transnational partnerships develop new transferable curricula and learning methodologies through the exchange of expertise and experience.. There appears to have been no evaluation of the value of these partnerships prior to the government’s decision.
  • It assumes that partner institutions will mutually waive student fees, a facility that is automatic through Erasmus but this is clearly in question as institutions in other countries will have little incentive to waive fees if they have no funding to cover placements for their own students. Support for student living costs are also significantly less than under Erasmus and there is no support for the travel costs of all but the most disadvantaged  HE students.
  • The government has claimed that Turing will particularly improve opportunities for disadvantaged learners but this seems to be unlikely if, as expected, the number of European placement opportunities declines due to a lack of reciprocal partner funding  and if there is a greater emphasis on non European placements the costs are likely to be greater. The take up of mobility placements by disadvantaged learners has been growing under Erasmus. My college, Newham College of Further Education in East London, places an average 100 students per annum ,the great majority from disadvantaged backgrounds, and withdrawal from Erasmus will put these placements at risk in the future.

The Fightback

Despite the government’s apparent determination to press ahead regardless, the opposition to the withdrawal from Erasmus and imposition of Turing has been growing rapidly throughout the UK. The devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland supported by 145 MEPs formally requested the EU to allow them to remain in the Erasmus programme and when this was declined due to the fact that they are not sovereign states the Wales government announced in the last week that it was introducing its own International Exchange programme with a budget of £65 million which will fund the components of Erasmus including incoming students that Turing has excluded. The Scottish government is expected to follow suit. Northern Ireland will effectively remain in Erasmus due to the Irish government allowing students to temporarily register with institutions in the south to participate in the programme.

The University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) which represents 54 university modern languages departments has written to Gavin Williamson deploring the withdrawal from Erasmus and pointing to the weaknesses in Turing and the precipitous consequences for modern language teaching and participation in the country. In parliament, an All Party Parliamentary Group on Erasmus chaired by Taiwo Owatemi MP has been taking evidence and raising the issues concerned with the government, a series of parliamentary questions have been submitted to ministers by the Shadow Minister for FE and HE Matt Western, and the Prime Minister has been challenged at PMQs.

Because the threat to future international educational opportunities and the sharing and transfer of knowledge is so severe, now is the time  for schools colleges and  universities to raise the alarm and maximise pressure on  the government  to change course. With the current restrictions on foreign travel and the fact that many institutions  will continue to receive  Erasmus funding until next year we have an opportunity over the next twelve months to persuade them to stay in the programme and this needs to be the ultimate goal. If they persist with Turing then major changes need to be made to prevent future transformational opportunities for our young people from being lost forever.

Martin Cumella is Chair of Newham College Corporation. If you want to support the campaign please contact him at m.cumella@mcaconsult.co.uk

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