In Scotland, the Anniversary of Erasmus is Tempered by Brexit Concerns

6th February 2017

This article has been slightly abbreviated. The full blog was published originally by the European Futures blog of the University of Edinburgh.

2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Erasmus programme, which gives students opportunities to gain new experiences and broaden their horizons by going abroad. What started as a modest mobility scheme for higher education students back in 1987, with only 3,200 students in its first year, has developed over the last 30 years into a flagship programme supporting almost 300,000 higher education students per year to carry out part of their studies in other EU and associated countries.

In recent years, the programme, now termed Erasmus+, has become much broader, providing opportunities for study periods and traineeships/apprenticeships for both higher education and vocational education and training students, youth exchanges, volunteering and staff exchanges in all fields of education, training, youth and sport. Erasmus+ is also more open to people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Almost 600,000 people from the UK have participated in the three decades since the programme began. Across the UK, more than 40,000 people participated in 2015-2016. This includes studying, training, volunteering and gaining professional experience in other EU countries.

In 2015-2016, Scottish colleges and HEI were awarded €7,316,361 in total and 1,600 students from Scotland go to Europe on study and/or work exchange programmes every year through Erasmus. The Scottish Government sees participation in Erasmus+ as helping to raise the profile of Scotland as a place to live, work and study in key overseas markets and to showcase the best of Scottish higher education to the world.

The Scottish Government also uses Erasmus to promote teacher exchanges in the context of its policy to promote foreign language teaching in primary schools, with some 250 teachers attending immersion courses in France and Spain in recent years.

Also it has used available EU funding to look at how national and local government and delivery bodies support disadvantaged young people to enter the labour market, leading to the development of a pilot in Grange Academy in East Ayrshire which combines the school curriculum with workplace training.

There is no sign, however, of any UK Government interest in building on this. The Prime Minister’s speech on 20 January gave no direct reference to student mobility. Many of those consulted for the Scottish Parliament report on Scottish attitudes to Brexit were concerned that the UK’s participation in Erasmus+ programmes may cease.

A reason may be the requirement under existing Erasmus partnership schemes to base the programme on the principle of freedom of movement.

This principle is of great importance to the university sector in Scotland in particular – 16% of academic staff in Scotland’s higher education sector is from the EU, rising to 23% among research-only staff. There are currently 24,000 students of EU nationality studying full and part-time at undergraduate and postgraduate level in Scotland. If the principle of freedom of movement is lost in Scotland, as the UK Government proposes, this could cause serious difficulties for student and staff recruitment, as well as impacting on the £88.8 million per year of research funding Scotland’s universities receive from EU sources.

The Scottish Government has proposed options for keeping Scotland in the Single Market, including freedom of movement, with a particular focus on a differentiated solution where Scotland would be in the European Economic Area, involving for example devolving immigration powers to Scotland.

UK Government reactions have been largely dismissive of the prospects of reaching such a solution, but following the Joint Ministerial Council on 30 January the Prime and First Ministers from the four administrations agreed to intensify work on the options to allow further consideration before the UK Government submits its Article 50 notification to leave the EU in the spring.

This is the therefore now the time when those who wish to preserve the benefits of student and staff mobility need to make their case to Edinburgh and London (and Cardiff and Belfast) of the importance of Erasmus and freedom of movement for staff and students more generally.

Please note that this article represents the view of the author(s) alone and not European Futures, the Edinburgh Europa Institute nor the University of Edinburgh.