Lucas Santerre, an 18-year-old French student with a fondness for Victorian architecture, had dreamed of spending a year studying in Britain under an EU scheme that has helped millions of students immerse themselves in another culture. But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last week that he was taking his country out of the Erasmus programme, severing yet another link with the Continent.
Santerre, who is in his first year of cultural studies at Lille University in northern France, had envisioned himself visiting castles during time out from his studies at Leeds University. He also planned to take a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, the epic Roman-era boundary that stretches along England’s border with Scotland.
But those hopes were dashed when Johnson, after striking a post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels, announced that Britain would leave the Erasmus student-exchange scheme that has spawned countless cross-border friendships, courtships and careers. Johnson, who passed up an invitation to remain in Erasmus after Brexit — six non-EU members including Turkey and Norway currently take part in the scheme — said that with nearly twice as many Europeans studying in Britain as Britons going abroad it had become “extremely expensive” for his country.
The announcement was met with howls of despair among Remainers, who praised Erasmus’s contribution to forging a generation of outward-looking pro-EU Britons. Writing in the Guardian about his experience as an Erasmus student in 1989 in Rotterdam, philosopher Julian Baggini said it taught him “not only what is valuable in cultures we are often quicker to parody than to understand, but what is strange in ourselves.”
How the Erasmus programme opens doors
Since its inception in 1987, some nine million people have benefitted from Erasmus to study or train in another EU country in what came to be seen by many students as a rite of passage.
Adrian Toomey, head of marketing at a training firm in Devon, who spent six months at a business school in Paris in 1999/2000 told AFP it had taught him “there is more to life than where you’re from”. “It opened doors you didn’t realise were there,” said the 43-year-old father of three, who went on to work for a French cheesemaker before moving back to Britain.
Across Europe, Erasmus was seen as another casualty of the nationalism that drove Brexit. The programme had “stripped away the Europe concocted in the wilder corners of the Tory imagination and allowed young people to see their continent for themselves,” the Irish Times wrote.
“That’s why the Brexiteers despise Erasmus – because it’s an open challenge to everything they purport to believe in.”
The pro-Brexit camp dismissed the outcry as hysteria from what they portrayed as a pro-EU elite.
Writing in the Spectator magazine, Conservative MP David Johnston argued that Erasmus had “overwhelmingly benefitted the children of the affluent and not those of the working class” for whom “Europe really isn’t the most interesting region of the world… particularly if your family tree traces back to Asia, the Americas or the Caribbean.”
Victim of its success
— Study International (@Study_INTNL) December 29, 2020
Home to several of the EU’s top universities, Britain had long been one of the most sought-after destinations for students anxious to improve their English and sample British student life.
Britain used to be the top choice of French Erasmus students, according to the Erasmus+ France agency which runs the scheme in France.
But Brexit had already diminished Britain’s allure, knocking it to third place among French exchange students in 2018-19, after Spain and Ireland.
Johnson said the Erasmus programme would be replaced by a home-grown scheme named after pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing that would provide support for 35,000 Britons to study abroad each year.
It will not however fund foreigners to study in Britain, meaning that EU students who would have paid the same tuition fees abroad as at home under Erasmus will now face much steeper charges.
Without EU funding, Santerre estimates he would now need more than 10,000 pounds (US$11,000) to cover his fees and other costs in Britain for a year — an impossible ask for his farming family.
“The goal was not to get into debt but to go abroad because it’s a wonderful experience and enriching,” he said.
“I’ve given up on the idea of Britain. I’m going to try Poland or Hungary,” he told AFP.
Ireland, Scandinavia to gain
Lamenting the loss of a programme from which his students “have benefitted enormously”, Geoffrey Kantaris, co-chair of Linguistics at Cambridge University, said it was “imperative that the government puts in place at least an equivalent scheme that provides for reciprocal access to study and work placements for our students regardless of socio-economic background.”
Laure Coudret-Laut, head of Erasmus+ France, said she expected many French students would now opt for Ireland, Malta or Scandinavian countries that offer many programmes in English.
Francois Boyer, a political science student in Lille who had planned on spending a year in London, said he was now considering Canada instead.
“By leaving Erasmus, Britain is robbing itself of talent,” Coudret-Laut said.