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Fears over future for Erasmus international student exchange scheme after Brexit

January 10, 2020 2:41 PM
By Andrew Woodcock Political Editor @andywoodcock in The Independent

Commons bid to force ministers to negotiate continued access for UK students is defeated by Tories

Former students who benefited from the EU's Erasmus+ scheme have voiced dismay following the defeat of a parliamentary bid to force the government to keep it open to UK students after Brexit.

Ministers insisted the government was still open to negotiating continued access to the programme, which provides exchange opportunities at universities around Europe, if it was in the UK's interests.

But college representatives warned that there was now "a definite risk" that British students will lose access after the end of this year, when a "transition period" to Brexit concludes.

An amendment tabled by Liberal Democrats, which would have enshrined in law a duty for ministers to try to keep Britain in the programme, was voted down by Conservative and DUP MPs in the Commons on Wednesday.

Both education minister Gavin Williamson and universities minister Chris Skidmore were among the MPs who defeated the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill by 344-254, as Boris Johnson's newly won majority in the House of Commons swept aside all opposition to his Brexit plans.

Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded "disgraceful".

Layla Moran Shadow Cabinet member for EducationFollowing the vote, Lib Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran told The Independent that it should be a "no-brainer" for the government to commit now to Erasmus+.

"Erasmus has transformed the way we think about education," said Ms Moran. "It has made studying abroad fashionable and affordable.

"Universities warn that no UK-led scheme could ever match the reputation and extensive partnerships that Erasmus has to offer. But rather than voting for our amendment, Conservative MPs are willing to let ministers negotiate away our membership of Erasmus if they think they could do a better job.

"It is time the Tories wake up and smell the coffee - are they in favour of staying in Erasmus or not? Liberal Democrats will fight to stop the Tories taking us out of vital EU programmes, weakening our universities and limiting the horizons of young people."

Mr Skidmore dismissed Wednesday's amendment as "game-playing by opposition parties", insisting that the UK remains "open" to continued participation in the scheme, subject to negotiations with the remaining EU states.

And the Department for Education said that the government was "committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus+ programme if it is in our interests to do so".

But the international director of the Association of Colleges, Emma Meredith, said: "Erasmus+ is a brilliant programme for opening up the world for young people and helping show people from across Europe that the UK is open to them.

"UK colleges will still be able to apply for Erasmus+ funding in 2020 during the 'transition period'. There is a definite risk that UK participation could stop in 2021, or that Erasmus+ could be replaced by another mobility programme."

Ms Meredith said the AoC remained "optimistic" that securing continued access to Erasmus+ would be high on the UK's priority list for negotiations on the future partnership with the EU, which will begin after the official date of Brexit on 31 January and are due to conclude at the end of this year.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Wilfully abandoning Erasmus+ would be a worryingly closed-minded move. The many benefits from having the opportunity to study abroad - from boosting employment prospects, to learning other languages and from other cultures - are well documented."

And the director of the Erasmus+ programme in the UK, Jane Racz, said: "The Erasmus+ programme has delivered and continues to deliver significant benefits to the UK and we need to ensure the positives of the programme are not lost as we move into the next stage".

Supporters of Erasmus+ expressed their anger on Twitter, where former student Josh Aarons said: "As someone from a working class background who studied and worked in Germany and Spain as part of my degree placement, who greatly benefited both educationally and culturally from Erasmus+, it is a crying shame that we cut off from a mutually beneficial exchange."

Sheffield Hallam University lecturer Steph Hannam-Swain said: "This is such a loss! We have some amazing Erasmus+ students each year who bring richness to our classes."

And charity worker Ashley Thompson said: "This is awful. These students have an amazing impact on our organisation and have so much to offer. Failing to continue with Erasmus+ programme will hurt British business now. It denies future generations an amazing opportunity."