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Whoever leads the UK must support international mobility—ideally through Erasmus Plus, writes Anne Marie Graham 

Depending on the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union, UK nationals’ freedom to work and study across Europe is set to change significantly. Since the referendum result in 2016, there has been widespread concern across the UK education sector about the potential impact on the UK’s participation in the Erasmus+ programme.

One of our objectives at the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) is to “promote opportunities and reduce obstacles to greater student mobility”. Programmes such as Erasmus+ are integral to achieving this goal.

Currently, Erasmus+ supports about 50 per cent of mobility from UK universities, and this proportion has increased since the introduction of the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility in 2013.  It also facilitates a significant proportion of short-term inward mobility each year. Research has consistently demonstrated that international students who have studied here have a more positive perception of the UK, which helps to promote the country and its education sector overseas and recruit yet more international students.

Erasmus+ is an important contributor to the UK’s current outward mobility target for 2020, which is 13 per cent of UK-domiciled full-time first-degree students. This target is already a stretch, despite comprehensive work by Universities UK International’s Go International, Stand Out campaign and its supporters and partners. Without the facility of Erasmus+ exchange and its funding streams, it may become even more difficult to achieve.

Nor is it just UK-domiciled students at UK universities who access study abroad programmes. In fact, one of the reasons behind the initial UK Strategy for Outward Mobility in 2013 was to encourage UK-domiciled students to access these opportunities because many universities reported that international students were much more open to mobility programme participation. Research by UUK International’s campaign shows that those who have been mobile once are more likely to access another chance of mobility, so it’s not surprising that international students in UK universities are taking further opportunities to travel abroad where their visa conditions allow them to do so.

This is likely to be because they recognise participating in mobility brings more than educational and political benefits.  

Confidence boost

Recent research by the Association of Colleges into the impact of Erasmus+ in further education described the overwhelming positive impact an Erasmus+ placement has on a student, with 100 per cent of respondents reporting an improvement in their personal confidence after the experience.

This research found 85 per cent of colleges reported that they used Erasmus+ to support work placements that they would not be able to offer without the programme, and the same proportion of respondents used Erasmus+ funds to support staff mobility opportunities. Most importantly, 94 per cent reported that they would not be able to support mobility programmes on a self-funded basis.

Erasmus+ is important because it is open to so many, and cuts across the education sector. As well as providing study abroad opportunities for students in universities and colleges, its funding supports work placements and vocational training. It also offers opportunities for staff mobility, enabling those who teach or support international students to enhance their skills and establish their own international professional network.

When the European Commission published its proposals for the 2021-2027 Erasmus+ programme, it committed to doubling the funding available to €30 billion, as well as expanding the programme’s global reach. It also committed to making it easier for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to have an Erasmus experience; Erasmus+ has a strong widening participation element to it, which is relevant to both home and international students.

Opportunities extended

Finally, plans for the future of the programme include reviewing the involvement of third countries—countries outside the EU (which is how the UK would be considered following Brexit). This could further extend mobility opportunities for students in UK universities and colleges.

As a result, it is more important than ever to ensure the UK retains its involvement with this dynamic programme, and for higher education institutions to pay attention to how the different political parties bidding to lead the country view the issue of student mobility.

The Conservative manifesto is published later today [Sunday] but so far none of the manifestos from the main political parties have specifically committed to either Erasmus+ or a replacement scheme. Chris Skidmore and Jo Johnson were both supportive as Conservative ministers for universities, but opposition parties have been less forthcoming about their views on Erasmus+. Amidst all the other issues that will be affected by the UK leaving the EU, it’s unlikely to be seen as a vote-winner for any party.

Nevertheless, there is strong cross-party support for international students, and for reviewing the immigration system to make it easier for talented individuals to come to the UK.

UKCISA and its members would like to see a future government commit to supporting Erasmus+ or a replacement programme, deal or no deal—not least because the European Union’s plans to open up this scheme to third countries would give UK students a wealth of new study abroad opportunities.

Replacement activity

While replacing Erasmus+ is a possibility, the only credible alternative would be a truly ambitious and extensive programme, which would be costly to implement. Any replacement would need to establish a new brand, and build its own reputation, whereas Erasmus is widely recognised worldwide—not just in Europe.

So UKCISA would prefer a commitment from politicians to support international mobility through the Erasmus+ programme, which would be simpler (and cheaper) than starting a new programme from scratch, and would ensure students in further and higher education are able to access an irreplaceable wealth of work and study abroad opportunities.

Such a commitment would also send out a message of continued collaboration with colleagues across European higher education. The importance of that message should not be underestimated in the UK’s future relationship with its European neighbours.

Anne Marie Graham is chief executive of UKCISA, the UK Council for International Student Affairs. She was previously director of Chevening, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s flagship global scholarship scheme. ukcisa.org.uk

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe