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Time for exchange

Willie Rennie says the Scottish government must act now to develop a replacement for Erasmus

“Erasmus changes your personality, it develops critical thinking, the way we look at the people around us.”

These are the words of Italian educationalist Sofia Corradi, who founded the Erasmus student exchange programme and helped to formally establish it in 1987.

It is a programme that many Europeans have come to recognise as one of the many advantages of being an EU member.

Corradi first had the idea for a European exchange programme back in the 1960s. It was an idea that emerged out of lingering post-war tension. The European Union was not yet set up and the Berlin Wall cast its iron glare on either side of a divided continent.

But with the establishment of the EU and the subsequent Erasmus programme, there came a feeling that progress was possible. It was the idea of progress born out of connection, exchange and internationalism—values that had seemed so fragile throughout much of the 20th century.

Since its creation, more than nine million people have taken part in Erasmus. For many of the programme’s participants, it is the first—and perhaps only—time they will get to live and study in another country. That is why it has often been described as life-changing.

Brexit aftermath

Today, however, as tanks roll across Ukraine, we are faced with a chillingly stark reminder of how quickly history can turn in on itself, and how quickly progress might vanish. Meanwhile, the UK now stands outside of the EU, looking in at what it has lost.

Post-Brexit, the UK government came up with the Turing Scheme as an Erasmus replacement, although, unfortunately, the funding for each student is substantially lower than what was available through Erasmus. This is largely because Turing seeks to finance travels around the world rather than just in Europe.

While this disappointing alternative exists, devolved administrations are still able to come up with a solution of their own and on 21 March 2021, the Welsh Liberal Democrat education secretary Kirsty Williams announced the Taith International Learning Exchange Programme, with £65 million of funding attached over five years.

This could have been a moment for the SNP to follow in the footsteps of the Welsh government and display a commitment to learning and opportunity. But instead, Nicola Sturgeon and her party have chosen to sit on their hands.

The nationalists like to blow their terminal foghorn for independence, loudly proclaiming it as a hold-all solution to absolutely any problem. To them, Brexit is just another problem that can, somehow, be resolved through building even more walls and breaking even further away. Like many others, I hear those words with a healthy dose of cynicism.

Everyone knows that getting back into Europe in an independent Scotland is far from a guarantee, although the nationalists take great delight in simplifying this.

Sturgeon uses the rallying cry of Europe to push her agenda for independence, yet if she really cared about Europe, she would have done all she could to help those who are missing out because of the impact of Brexit right now.

Freedom of information

A recent freedom of information request from my party found that whereas Wales is well on its way to fully establishing its Erasmus equivalent, the Scottish government has done close to zero.

Whereas the Welsh government deployed 14 people to work on their replacement at any one time, the Scottish government has had just three people working on theirs—at the most.

Whereas the Welsh scheme already has 5,698 exchange opportunities lined up from September 2022, the Scottish scheme does not even have a confirmed timetable for a consultation process.

Scottish ministers have had no meetings about their Erasmus replacement, and there is no money allocated to it currently. Does this really suggest a government that cares about being back in Europe?

Of course, this isn’t the first time the SNP has burnished its European credentials for votes while simultaneously failing to do any hard work that might back those up credentials.

This is a party that spent more time and money on fighting a Shetland by-election than it did on the entire EU referendum.

Alternative plans

So, if the SNP is serious about boosting the Scottish economy and delivering opportunities for a generation of students, this stunning lack of interest must end.

It needs to get to work and establish a two-way programme from next September, backed by a system of grant guarantees to ensure accessibility for all. There’s no good reason to delay.

Erasmus benefits young people. It gives them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that cultivates self-confidence, cultural awareness and second-language learning. It fosters international cooperation and brings huge potential to our workforce, to our economy, and to the very fabric of our nation.

If the UK and Scottish governments care about these values, they need to step up to the mark. They must follow the example of Kirsty Williams in Wales and devote proper resources to getting a replacement up and running.

That is how we will show that progress is possible. That is how we will follow the lead of our European neighbours. That is how we will make education, cultural exchange and opportunity open to all.

Willie Rennie is a member of the Scottish Parliament and led the Scottish Liberal Democrats between 2011 and 2021