The British rejection of the Erasmus programme has resulted in a major loss for UK students, though that’s not nearly as bad as the obstacles in the path of others. All of this seems like a deliberate attempt to prevent any spirit of unity between Britain and its neighbours.
Pre-Brexit, the UK was blessed with access to this wonderful scheme, which continues to function between many EU counties. Rebranded as Erasmus+ as of 2014, this programme works almost entirely as an exchange of students between European institutions. Since its debut in 1987, has given ‘9 million people the chance to study, train, volunteer, or gain professional experience abroad’.
Erasmus was also a visa-free programme for UK students, thanks to the existence of the Schengen area – yet another positive incentive which led to a staggering total of 49,000 students (of whom 17,000 were British going outside the UK and 32,000 other EU nationals entering Britain) participating in 2018.
Not only is Erasmus+ an invaluable opportunity to improve career prospects and gain work experience abroad, it also improves intercultural relations for both students and institutions, contributing towards a European sense of connection; something which is increasingly important in our ever-globalising world.
The Turing Scheme
With Brexit came the UK withdrawal from Erasmus+, and a feeble attempt to replicate it materialised under the name of the Turing Scheme. While the new UK-based scheme may be named after a genius, its contents is far from such.
In a very different manner to Erasmus+, under the Turing Scheme universities have to bid for funding from the government for study abroad programmes, and depending on whether or not they receive this, their students receive funding. Basically, it is a huge minefield. The most defining statement on my university’s website is ‘The overall national budget is limited, and funding is not guaranteed’.
For a university student pursuing a languages degree, this has become quite a problem in negotiating visas and internships for my upcoming year abroad. When a high-end Parisian recruitment team face the option of choosing an EU national or a British student with visa complications as their new intern, the answer is practically crystal clear.
However, I am more than aware that my visa worries are the epitome of a first world problem. While I hope to secure an internship abroad so that I can improve my career prospects and get closer to fluency in French, some asylum-seekers who speak English are forced to move to other European countries because they cannot waste time and money on the British visa process.
The view from Spain and Turkey
Over this summer, I had first-hand contact with non-UK residents who spoke fluent English yet were reluctant to move to the UK post Brexit. The first of these was my young teacher in a Spanish language course in Barcelona, who wishes to be known as M. He speaks perfect English and wants to leave Spain in the near future. Spain is in political and economic turmoil – the Spanish job market is far from abundant, with unemployment rates still exceeding 13% in 2022. The mess that Premier Pedro Sánchez (head of the PSOE, a left-wing party), caused during Covid has led to the sharp resurgence of the extreme right. Despite his language capabilities, the UK would not be M’s first choice, because of the visa system since Brexit.
One fellow student in this class was a Turkish dentist who fled Turkey due to the humiliations borne by medical practitioners in her homeland. She described a situation in which medical professionals were underappreciated and treated with disrespect on a daily basis. Again, she spoke English almost fluently, but did not move to the UK, as learning Spanish to an advanced level would allow her to transfer her degree to Spain and thus obtain a Schengen visa, allowing her to freely live, work and travel within the EU.
So, not only has Brexit limited student exchange capacity, but it has also limited an international influx of high-end professionals. Hostility from the UK towards EU citizens, as well as the absence of the Schengen visa, means that it seems more appealing to learn a whole new language than to move to the UK.
I am lucky. My grandfather was Italian and therefore I have the grounds to apply for Italian citizenship. However, while this is a way around the mess of Brexit for me, it is not accessible to all, and it is also expensive, complicated, and time-consuming.
Why study abroad?
The practical reason for wanting my Italian citizenship is so I can work and travel easily within Europe, But also, I am desperately clutching onto the glorious community of feeling European. This past year I have explored Paris with German friends and lived in Barcelona with a Swiss student. It gave me a sense of international camaraderie which I will strive to retain, no matter how much Brexit attempts to take this away from me.
Thankfully, other young Europeans seem to share this spirit. We think of the European experience that Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about. He explored his continent in troubled times. But he found that being a student in Europe during the 30s made you somebody special, a seeker of knowledge, and the title was honoured.
So yes, Brexit is a large pain which we are learning to live with. But most importantly, there is still a nexus of young people who want to retain and develop a current of European thought. While Brexit attempts to gatekeep this European society from the British reach, we will continue our desperate and whole-hearted attempts to be accepted. We must not lose sight of the essence of excitement that comes with European togetherness, despite the mess that that tiresome Vote Leave campaign has caused around us.
So what is our place in Europe? We’re getting closer to an answer. Be sure to read the next instalment in our story next Friday.