Last December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the country would leave the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme after Brexit. Projects that received funding from the current Erasmus+ programme in 2020 or earlier will be completed normally. Prime Minister Johnson mainly based the decision on economic reasons. The UK’s exit from the programme is significant and not all of the consequences can be predicted. However, clear and immediate consequences are already emerging.
Britain’s departure from Erasmus+ could mean the loss of thousands of European exchange students to the UK. The programme was also highly important to British students, since around half of those completing a period abroad did so through Erasmus. The country has sometimes been the third most popular destination country for Erasmus+ periods abroad among Finnish university students. At worst, the decision to withdraw from the programme could lead to a reduction in international mobility periods for students if they do not find a suitable alternative destination. In Finland, the trend is already worrying, as the annual number of periods abroad has been declining in recent years. The UK’s departure from the Erasmus+ programme is a hard blow to the internationalisation of Finnish students.
According to calculations by Universities UK, the net impact of the Erasmus+ programme equals around £243 million of income a year for the UK economy. Financial benefits are derived from international students visiting the country and young British people gaining valuable work experience during their period abroad. Withdrawal from Erasmus+ may have diplomatic as well as economic consequences: it could weaken Britain’s connection with continental Europe. During Erasmus+, students learn about the customs and European values of the country they visit. They also strengthen their European identities. When living in a foreign country, students learn about the local language, culture and mindset in a totally different way to attending lectures.
The UK has proposed a national Turing programme, named after the famous British mathematician Alan Turing, as a replacement to ensure that international mobility continues. The new programme is intended to be global and based on bilateral agreements. However, creating a programme from scratch is not straightforward, as Erasmus+ is more than just a mobility programme for university students. It enables young people, students and teachers to learn, study and train abroad. The programme also provides an opportunity for organisations to collaborate with international partners. These aims are difficult to achieve through bilateral agreements alone. The economic crisis caused by the pandemic poses an additional challenge to creating a new programme.
What if all countries started building their own national programmes to promote internationalisation? In addition to a system of their own, each country would have to build bilateral relations with each new country. This would be bureaucratic and take time. In addition, thousands of periods abroad would be lost during the transition. Erasmus+ is so impressive because it is based on unique collaboration. It gains significant network advantages from university contacts, and shared rules and services. That is one reason why Erasmus was founded about forty years ago. International cooperation was based on national programmes prior to Erasmus. If each country began developing its own programme, we would simply begin setting up Erasmus 2.0 in ten or twenty years’ time. We can achieve more for less by cooperating.
Member of the Board
PS. The future of Erasmus looks bright, even if Britain is leaving the EU and Erasmus. The Erasmus+ budget will almost double to around €26 billion for the 2021–27 programming period. This will enable the Europeanisation of 12 million participants, around three times the number of the previous programming period.