Will a vote to leave the EU affect Erasmus+ student exchanges?
Claudina Richards, Law School, UEA
As the Erasmus+ director at the University of East Anglia (UEA) Law School responsible for Erasmus+ student exchanges, students have asked me whether a majority vote to leave the European Union will affect their ability to go on an Erasmus+ exchange. This is a very important question as there are both academic and cultural benefits gained from taking part in an Erasmus+ exchange.
Studies in the UK and at the EU level have found that completing a period of study elsewhere in Europe enhances students’ skills and employability, which in turn contributes to ensuring that UK employers are able to hire graduates with the qualities that they are looking for. These gains for students, and the country as a whole, are fully recognised by UK universities and the National Union of Students, who are all in favour of remaining within the EU. Universities for Europe has stated: “The EU provides opportunities for large numbers of UK students and researchers to experience living and working in continental Europe. This allows British students the opportunity to build networks and absorb other languages and cultures. These are the experiences British students need to become the global leaders of tomorrow.”
In the immediate term, Erasmus+ exchanges between UK universities and their European partners would continue on the same basis. It is not expected that the UK will immediately withdraw from the EU as the British government would first want to negotiate the terms of its post-Brexit relations. These negations, under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, will be complex and lengthy, so it is unlikely that student exchanges in 2017/18 would be affected, nor indeed those in 2018/19. This is not to say, however, that there will not be any impact on students looking to study abroad as they would be affected by any depreciation of the pound, making their time away more expensive and thus adding to their overall student debt.
It is difficult to say, however, what the position will be after the Brexit negotiations, as this would involve predicting the terms of the withdrawal agreement, its duration and beyond. According to the EU’s current legislation establishing the Erasmus+ programme, countries outside the EU can participate in the Erasmus+ programme. This is what allows EFTA states in the EEA, such as Norway, to take part in the exchange programme, as well as candidate countries, such as Turkey. Other European countries can be included on the basis of bilateral agreements concluded with the EU, which is the case for Switzerland.
Participation in the Erasmus+ programme would require a financial contribution from the non-EU country joining, so any British government entering into a bilateral agreement would have to be willing to pay to take part in the joint endeavour. In addition, we have seen the falling out of the EU and Switzerland following the Swiss referendum in 2014 to limit the free movement of incoming EU workers, with Switzerland being suspended from the Erasmus+ programme.
In practice, students have not been impacted because universities have continued with their exchanges and the Swiss authorities are paying grants directly to both outgoing and incoming students. British students going to Switzerland have not, therefore, noticed the lack of Erasmus+ grant, but we have to wonder if the British government would be likely to pay an additional grant to students from English universities wishing to study in an EU member state if a similar situation were to arise after the UK had withdrawn from the EU.
What, then, if Britain did not take part in the Erasmus+ programme (or a successor programme)? Student exchanges between universities would no doubt continue, on the same basis as current study abroad arrangements with countries outside Europe, such as Australia and USA.
It might be tempting to say that we would just be returning to the situation prior to the UK joining the EEC, or before the launch of the Erasmus programme in 1987, as students were prefectly able to study abroad as part of their degree. However, the surrounding circumstances have significantly changed as, previously, students did not pay tuition fees and many received grants from their LEA. Today, students would still be eligible for the travel grant offered by Student Finance England, although they must pay the first £303 of expenses themselves and the grant is reduced once the household income is over £39,796; the Erasmus+ grant does not contain any such conditions.
Only time would tell if students would find other obstacles appearing, for example the need to pay for medical insurance if the UK does not participate in the European Health Insurance Card. There may even be restrictions placed by the host country on UK students as to their ability to work during their visit, as we see in the USA.
It would be a great shame if, in the future, a student wishing to study elsewhere in Europe as part of their degree was put off from doing so because of the cost.