Why Scotland should rejoin Erasmus-Plus

This is the text of a talk given by EMiS executive member David Gow to the recent Grassroots for Europe webinar on the Four Nations’ responses to Erasmus-Plus/Turing:

After a month of the Euros, we are even closer to gauging the reality of “Global Britain,” the UK Government’s post-Brexit strategy for being “open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage”: it is tawdry English nationalism with a Union Flag stamped over it for most Scots. We in Scotland are genuinely open and outward-looking. Many of us even welcome the (relative) success of the English football team. And we welcome the huge contribution European and other foreign nationals, workers and students, make to our economy and society.

This is why, in common with the Scottish Government, the European Movement in Scotland campaigns for re-joining Erasmus asap. Our overall strategy towards the EU is for Scotland to re-join – whether as part of the UK or as a member state in its own right. (We are neutral on the independence question as a cross-party body). The Turing alternative is, as our national poet would have put it, a “wee timorous beastie,” lacking both scope and generosity.

There are several reasons why the Scottish Government, trade unions and others including ourselves (EMiS) are holding out to re-join Erasmus – even in the face of the flat rejection by Ursula von der Leyen, Commission president, to admit a “sub-state” to the world’s biggest international education exchange that’s shared with 168 countries on top of 33 full members.

A key one is the Turing alternative will not cover apprentices/trainees, youth workers, volunteers, adult learners, education staff and a host of others (4000 institutions all told). It is by and large aimed at university students although government ministers from Johnson downwards – many of them Oxford PPE graduates denounce Erasmus as “elitist.” In fact, by concentrating on the ‘Anglosphere” and south-east Asia to the detriment of Europe Turing will probably end up enjoyed by “rich white kids” at Russell Group unis.

As Mary Senior, STUC president, told an EMiS webinar earlier this year: “We need to challenge the perception that Erasmus is a middle-class perk.”  She pointed to the many apprentices and young workers who had taken part. Turing, she added, was simply “treating international students as cash cows.” More than 8000 British trainees alone studied in Europe in 2019. They are excluded from Turing which is being touted as part of the UK government’s “levelling up” project by allegedly favouring low income/deprived households. As you can imagine, that gets a loud, rich raspberry in Scotland.

Another key reason is that Erasmus-Plus funds both outgoing and incoming young people and their teachers/advisors. Almost 30,000 came here in 2018 while 10,000 British HE students enjoyed studies in European institutions, including some 2000 from Scotland where two of the top three sending institutions (Glasgow and Edinburgh Unis) are based.  For Scots this mutual exchange is vital: the loss of freedom of movement is already hurting the Scottish economy and society; EU nationals not only enrich our culture they keep our population at healthy levels. Turing is a one-way process, an ideologically inspired cul de sac: hardly an exemplar for the soft power the UK Government is supposedly keen on promoting.

Third, Turing – which may last only a year – is endowed so far with just £105m for 35,000 placements, with the lion’s share going to HE (£60m and 20,000 placements). Erasmus-Plus, however, has seen a fifth of funding for vocational education going to young people from low-income households and the new 2021-27 programme, whose budget has been almost doubled to €26bn, will see a greater proportion of funding going to poorer students/trainees.

The false idea promoted by UK ministers that Erasmus-Plus is, somehow, unaffordable – costing £286m, a figure plucked out of the air – is belied by Scottish Government analysis that for every £1 spent £7 is generated in net income. Indeed, we need a proper full-scale cost-benefit-analysis of the rival schemes. The Welsh Assembly Government scheme now being prepared bat Cardiff is alone worth £65m – and is reciprocal.

So, where do we go from here?

There are two options for Scotland. We would discard a third option – adopting Turing in full – as wrong-headed for the reasons outlined above. It is simply inadequate as a replacement, offering far fewer opportunities for Scottish learners and teachers. One option is to hold out for re-joining (“reassociating with”) Erasmus, building such a head of steam with our Welsh and, above all, English colleagues that the campaign proves unstoppable. This must mean that the English-based scheme, working towards the same goal, gathers a significant amount of momentum and, frankly, much more than now.

The other is to follow the lead of Wales and get our own Erasmus-style scheme, using some of the Scottish Government’s £447m budget under-spend to help fund it. One of our supporters, Wendy Chamberlain, LibDem MP in Fife, has said: “Introducing a new scheme in Scotland similar to what Wales has already prepared can help Scottish education and students bounce back from the pandemic and the impact of Brexit.” 

It will be hard if not impossible to match the sheer scope of Erasmus-Plus – the wealth of its offer, including the new elements built around digital and green issues such as student ecards and the solidarity corps. Reciprocity must be a core element of any such scheme as it is of Erasmus. Plus, a genuine emphasis on helping young people from low-income households/deprived areas fulfil their potential. 

What we know so far is that the Scottish Government is following a twin-track approach we would endorse: reaching out to EU institutions and governments (at different levels) to press the re-joining case while gradually preparing the ground for a Scottish exchange scheme per se. The latter is at a very early stage and the Welsh are further ahead in their own preparations but the SNP manifesto commitment is to offer the same degree of support to beneficiaries as before.  Though the former garners support there are many who caution against raising expectations too high or believe it’s pie-in-the-sky as long as there is a Leave administration in Westminster/Whitehall.

One positive development is that the cross-party Scottish Affairs Committee report of late May was critical of Turing, held out for Scotland re-joining Erasmus and endorsed the need for an immigration scheme that works for the university sector in Scotland. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, is a committee member. And the trade unions are on side, with a motion at the STUC congress overwhelmingly approved: “Congress calls on UCU Scotland to continue to lobby the Scottish government to join the Erasmus scheme on its own and offer whatever support is necessary to achieve this end.” However, some of our leading universities are lukewarm about this approach as is the Scottish Funding Council.

So, we in Scotland need to sustain and, indeed, step up our campaign to re-join and strongly encourage our friends in Wales and, of course, England to do the same. Brexit is a mega own goal as even Leavers admit and the daily evidence underlines. Let’s act as a four nation team and ensure Erasmus returns home…