The government’s withdrawal from the European educational mobility programmes exposes the bleak, deliberate meanness at the heart of the Brexit ideology – and gives us a way to start the fight back
For the last fortnight, social media channels have been echoing with howls of protest at the announcement that, as part of the UK-EU “deal”, our country will cease to participate in the Erasmus+ or European Solidarity Corps programmes. Articles and letters in the mainstream media have also complained about the loss of “Erasmus”. Most of these voices are probably, though not necessarily, those of Remainers. But one thing is clear: few of them seem to know the details of what they are talking about, why the government’s decision was entirely unilateral, or why these European programmes are so worth defending.
Particularly disappointing is that many pro-European commentators share this ignorance, which weakens their position as advocates for the people most damaged by Brexit, namely the young. Some go so far as to say that we should shut up about “Erasmus”: in a recent tweet, James Ball of the New European wrote:
“Please, please please stop talking about Erasmus. It will not change a single mind, and it completely helps the framing that Remainers are mainly concerned about middle-class gap years. It is an absolute loser and a sign we have learned nothing in four years.”
He could not be more wrong. It is the commentators who have not bothered to do their homework who give strength to the Brexiter narrative.
Setting the record straight
There is every reason to bang on about Erasmus+ and its younger sibling, the European Solidarity Corps. Let’s begin by correcting some of the misapprehensions which the Brexit mountebanks are happy to peddle.
- It’s called Erasmus. No, it isn’t. “Erasmus” was a university student exchange programme, started in 1987 by 11 founding countries including the UK. The current programme, which began in 2014, is called Erasmus Plus. It incorporates the former Erasmus scheme, but now includes a wide range of other activities – youth group exchanges, primary and secondary school links, vocational education, lifelong learning projects and much more. That little “Plus” sign matters a lot.
- It’s a “student exchange scheme” for universities. Wrong – see above.
- It only benefits middle class liberal metropolitan elites. Untrue. The explicit aim of the programme – and its reality in practice – is to benefit young people “with fewer opportunities”, increase employability, and encourage active citizenship. It has nothing to do with gap years.
- It’s just a jolly. Anyone who says this, has no understanding of non-formal education or youth work: a voluntary, structured, equitable programme of activities that encourages active participation, positive behaviour, social interaction and a sense of possibility. International projects enable young people to escape from their narrow, everyday environments and discover a wider world. And yes, it’s fun because learning bloody well should be.
- It only benefits a tiny number of people. Well, that depends on your point of view. Since 2014, almost 300,000 young people and professionals have directly participated in around 7,000 projects run by UK organisations, across the whole spectrum of education (schools, vocational colleges, adult education providers, youth groups, community arts groups and, indeed, universities). This doesn’t include participants on projects overseas, funded from other countries’ budget allocations, or indirect beneficiaries such as schoolchildren involved in classroom twinning activities.
- It’s expensive. Hmmm. About 1 billion euros for the UK, over 7 years. That’s an average of roughly €3,000 (approximately £2,700) per participant . Considering the alternative life chances that can be created, it is fair to compare this with the monthly cost of keeping a young person on the dole (£520) or in a young offenders’ institution (£7,950). By the way, a significant percentage of grants to UK organisations is actually spent in the UK (for accommodation, food and activities) to which one can add participants’ personal spending. So there is a direct local economic benefit too.
- It only covers the EU. No. The programme funds projects with all parts of the world. Even my small organisation has cooperated with partners in the Middle East, China, Latin America, India and South East Asia, as well as the Caucasus, Russia and Eastern Europe, funded by Erasmus Plus.
- Its added value is questionable. What value do you put on giving a young person a life-changing experience, broadening their horizons, awakening their social conscience, helping them to get a job, or (unintended consequence) finding the love of their life?
- It’s not in the national interest. Ever heard the phrase “global Britain” recently? Quite apart from the development of practical and soft skills, the self-confidence which helps young people to get jobs, and the consequent benefits to employers, international experience gives you an appreciation of cultures and ways of life different from your own: diversity becomes something lived and real, not just abstract political correctness. This contributes to improved community cohesion and, ultimately, national security.
- It was a necessary part of the Brexit negotiations. False. While we were in the EU, we were able to negotiate our participation in Erasmus+ or otherwise. Several non-EU countries are full members of the programme. It’s always been a matter of free, sovereign choice.
- Its aims are political. The preamble to the Erasmus Plus programme guide, quoted below, makes clear that its aims are firmly social and educational. But there is also a cultural relations dimension because, as a side-effect, young people who get to know another country will very often return home with a positive view of that country – including those who come to the UK. If they have learned to cooperate on a European level, they will also have a positive view of what it means to be European. If you think that’s a bad thing, then you are beyond redemption.
The European Solidarity Corps
In addition to Erasmus Plus, there is the European Solidarity Corps. This has been dismissed out of hand by the government, without explanation. One assumes they simply don’t like the name. Well, it’s hard to find anyone in Europe who does: most would have preferred to keep the name of its precursor, the European Voluntary Service (EVS); but that doesn’t detract from the value of a programme which, with similar aims to Erasmus Plus, provides opportunities for short- and long–term volunteering, internship and work placements abroad, as well as youth-led community projects in your own country. If we are going to enable the younger generation to solve the really big problems facing the world, then solidarity is exactly what’s needed.
No one pretends that these programmes are perfect. They have many faults. The way they are administered is heavily bureaucratic. The application process is difficult, cumbersome, and therefore off-putting to most small organisations; assessment of grant applications is often a lottery and lacks strategic vision (each country can set its own national priorities within the programme: the UK is the only one never to have done so). They are not well enough known – the government has done practically nothing to promote them; although the Eurodesk information network (originally a Scottish initiative) does a good job with limited resources.
The programmes are not big enough: we should be giving international experience to every young person, regardless of background. Alongside those with fewer opportunities, perhaps it is the privileged who need it most: if the Rees-Moggs and Duncan Smiths of this world had actually experienced an Erasmus+ programme in their youth, they would have had the life-changing opportunity to meet and understand people different from themselves. In that parallel universe, maybe they would have led the Remain campaign.
The “Turing Programme”
Quite apart from what one may think of the choice of name, the new scheme announced by the government will scarcely begin to replace what has been lost. It has been cooked up in a hurry with minimal (if any) consultation. From the sketchy information so far provided, it seems to be an academic programme for universities, colleges and schools only, and will be one-directional: students will be able to travel abroad from the UK but not vice-versa. Mutual benefit, intercultural learning and social impact are nowhere to be seen. There is an emphasis on the anglophone world; Europe is not mentioned. It is likely to attract young people who are wealthy, well-educated and self-confident enough to travel around the world.
A budget of £100 million has been allocated, to fund 35,000 participants. Curiously, that’s almost the same per head as Erasmus+, which the Prime Minister has declared “too expensive”. No one seems to know whether this level of funding is for one year or many, a rolling programme or a one-off. In any case, it will require an agency to administer it, and a whole new set of rules and bureaucracy. In all probability, the money will go to large institutions who already get the lion’s share of publicly funded schemes.
Few would deny that we have long needed to build more educational links beyond Europe, especially with the USA, the Commonwealth, China and Russia. Erasmus Plus allowed this to some extent, but the UK had a golden opportunity to exploit its unique position as a portal between these different spheres (Churchill’s three circles of influence, and more) by creating an exciting global programme and dovetailing it with Erasmus Plus. The Turing scheme does not come anywhere close. It is a dismal failure of imagination.
The Brexit world in a grain of sand
The decision to abandon Erasmus Plus and the Solidarity Corps, and to create a “pure British” alternative, tells you in microcosm all you need to know about the Brexit project and the people behind it. The agenda is mean and narrow-minded; it’s all about limiting opportunity, not expanding it. The concepts of “global Britain” and “levelling up” are a sham. Retaining the UK’s position in the European mobility programmes would have been an easy win, signalling to young people that their voices and futures were valued. It would have been an opportunity to reach across the Brexit divide and create a little unity at no political cost. That this did not happen indicates that – just like Trump – Johnson, Gove and their acolytes prefer to foment disunity in order to energise their political base.
Much more serious, however, are the implications for the UK’s international cultural relations or what was once called “public diplomacy”. In recent years the slightly sinister phrase “soft power” has crept into currency instead, perhaps as a term more palatable to those politicians who prefer power to relationships. It makes little difference. DFID has already gone. The British Council’s grant for Europe has been slashed at the very time when we need to build bridges there. The BBC is under threat, and no doubt its World Service too. With the loss of Erasmus Plus, another line of writing is on the wall.
We need to band together to promote the value of cultural relations and to save the great institutions which for almost a century have given the UK a good name around the world. A rearguard action around Erasmus Plus is our first barricade: that is why we need to keep on shouting.
A cause for hope
Campaigns and petitions are already taking shape in support of Erasmus Plus (or, in most cases, only “Erasmus”). But campaigns directed at Westminster are unlikely to succeed. A government that ignored 6 million signatures will not be bothered by a few thousand. No amount of evidence, argument or (least of all) emotion will convince them to change their minds.
Those of us who care about this must take the future into our own hands. We need to find our natural allies and convene conversations with people who don’t need to be told why broadening young people’s horizons matters, or the value of international experience for employment, social mobility, community cohesion and national security.
Let us work through our collective networks of European partnerships to grow new, local initiatives in parallel to Erasmus Plus. At a local level, young people can more easily find an audience for their stories, and a more meaningful lobbying process can begin. The Irish government has announced its intention to support Northern Irish students to access the programme; Scotland is looking for its own way back; other countries and even the European Commission may be sympathetic. None of this will yet amount to replacing what has been lost, but it is a start and it tells us we are not alone.
“Remain” is dead; “Rejoin” is for the future. But piece-by-piece, in the sectors where each of us has experience, small conversations and modest actions will eventually add up and break through into the national mainstream. Young people have been disproportionately harmed by the nationalist agenda of Brexit. It makes sense to begin by creating something for them.
So many people have said, since Christmas Eve especially, that they feel powerless to resist the flood tide of lies from the worst government in our history. Building our own “people’s alternative” to Erasmus Plus is one way we can actually start to fight back. If we can start projects of our own, however small, we will find many friends willing to help us in the UK and across the rest of Europe. Step by step, we can get the UK back into the lost programmes and there will be nothing the hardliners can do to stop us.
Making a noise about Erasmus Plus is a practical and direct way to show our rejection and resistance to the nationalist virus that has infected our body politic. It’s our first vaccine.
PREAMBLE TO THE ERASMUS PLUS PROGRAMME GUIDE
“Education, training, youth and sport can make a major contribution to help tackle socio-economic changes, the key challenges that Europe will be facing until the end of the decade and to support the implementation of the European policy agenda for growth, jobs, equity and social inclusion.
“Fighting high levels of unemployment particularly among young people is one of the most urgent tasks for European governments. Too many young people leave school prematurely running a high risk of being unemployed and socially marginalised. The same risk threatens many adults with low skills. Technologies are changing the way in which society operates, and there is a need to ensure the best use is made of them. EU businesses need to become more competitive through talent and innovation.
“Europe needs more cohesive and inclusive societies which allow citizens to play an active role in democratic life. Education, training, youth work and sport are key to promote common European values, foster social integration, enhance intercultural understanding and a sense of belonging to a community, and to prevent violent radicalisation. Erasmus+ is an effective instrument to promote the inclusion of people with disadvantaged backgrounds, including newly arrived migrants.
“Another challenge relates to the development of social capital among young people, the empowerment of young people and their ability to participate actively in society, in line with the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty to “encourage the participation of young people in democratic life in Europe”. This issue can also be targeted through non formal learning activities, which aim at enhancing the skills and competences of young people as well as their active citizenship. Moreover, there is a need to provide youth organisations and youth workers with training and cooperation opportunities, to develop their professionalism and the European dimension of youth work.
“Well performing education and training systems and youth policies provide people with the skills required by the labour market and the economy, while allowing them to play an active role in society and achieve personal fulfilment. Reforms in education, training and youth can strengthen progress towards these goals, on the basis of a shared vision between policy makers and stakeholders, sound evidence and cooperation across different fields and levels.
“The Erasmus+ Programme is designed to support Programme Countries’ efforts to efficiently use the potential of Europe’s talent and social assets in a lifelong learning perspective, linking support to formal, non formal and informal learning throughout the education, training and youth fields. The Programme also enhances the opportunities for cooperation and mobility with Partner Countries, notably in the fields of higher education and youth.
“In accordance with one of the new elements introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, Erasmus+ also supports activities aiming at developing the European dimension in sport, by promoting cooperation between bodies responsible for sport. The Programme promotes the creation and development of European networks, providing opportunities for cooperation among stakeholders and the exchange and transfer of knowledge and know how in different areas relating to sport and physical activity. This reinforced cooperation will notably have positive effects in developing the potential of Europe’s human capital by helping reduce the social and economic costs of physical inactivity.
“This investment in knowledge, skills and competences will benefit individuals, institutions, organisations and society as a whole by contributing to growth and ensuring equity, prosperity and social inclusion in Europe and beyond.”
No internationally-minded person would disagree with these statements. But if you prefer “British” to “European”, then mutatis mutandis, the point should be clear.