Is this the end of the Year Abroad for UK Modern Languages students? Time is running out for Erasmus

The UACES Network |

By Nicholas Startin, Chair of UACES

Six months ago back in early January, my fellow UACES Officers and I posted the message below on our website addressing our concerns about the prospects of the UK not remaining part of the Erasmus+ programme post Brexit:

As a UK based European Studies academic association, we note with concern, as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU at the end of January, the lack of clarity surrounding the future of Erasmus funding, raising the prospect that the UK may not be part of the next Erasmus cycle scheduled to run from 2021 to 2027.

Since 1987, more than 200,000 UK students have benefitted from the scheme (many from the universities of our members), either studying or working in EU countries on the Erasmus exchange programme, advancing their language skills and immersing themselves in the culture of their country of study. It has also enabled university, college and school staff to share best practice in teaching, including many of our members. Withdrawing from the Erasmus scheme would deprive thousands of UK students’ access to the funding that this unique opportunity offers, serving to undermine the great benefits that the scheme offers in terms of social mobility.

In the UK, according to data compiled by the European Commission in 2019, only 32% of 15-30 year-olds in the UK stated they are able to read or write in more than one language. In all other EU countries, the percentage was between 71% and 99%. Not remaining part of the Erasmus Plus scheme would only serve to weaken further the UK’s position as the country faces the economic challenges posed by withdrawing from the EU.

As an association, we urge the government to ensure that remaining part of the Erasmus Plus programme in the future 2021 to 2027 cycle is a key priority in the negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Dr Nick Startin, Dr Maria Garcia, Dr Jocelyn Mawdsley and Dr Katharine Wright (UACES Officers) January 2020

Six months on, with the decision not to extend the transition period beyond the end of June, I have become increasingly concerned that the UK government are about to leave a generation of UK language learners unable to take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Erasmus Year Abroad experience has to offer in terms of cultural and linguistic discovery. Around the time of our original statement, there was some cause for optimism, when Boris Johnson stated at Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) that ‘there is no threat to the Erasmus scheme.’

This was in spite of the fact that parliament voted against a Liberal Democrat amendment to the Brexit bill tabled by Lelya Moran which sought to guarantee the UK’s membership of Erasmus. The Prime Minister went on to say that ‘UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will continue to be able to come to this country.’

Johnson’s intervention at PMQs was followed in February by a paper that the UK government published outlining its approach to the future relationship, which appeared to show a commitment to remaining part of the Erasmus+ scheme as a non-member of the EU. The paper stated that the government was ‘ready to consider standard third-country participation in certain EU programmes where it was in both sides’ interests’ and there was specific reference to Erasmus+ in this discussion.

Since then though there has been less cause for optimism. Discussions on the UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme did feature in the virtual negotiations conducted between the UK and the EU in early June but it remains unclear the extent of the progress made (if any) as a result of these discussions.  In the same month Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy Lancaster and Minister of the Cabinet Office, did acknowledge in the parliamentary debate about EU Trade Relations that ‘we know how important Erasmus is to many, and we will continue to seek membership of those programmes across the United Kingdom.’ However, in truth, there are no signs of any concrete progress having been made.

The UK government’s decision not to extend the transition period beyond January 31 at the end of June has raised the real possibility that an agreement on Erasmus is unlikely to be secured within the remaining timeframe. According to Universities UK International’s estimations leaving Erasmus+ could cost Britain as much as £243 million a year in terms of its overall economic value.

Since its inception in 1987, Erasmus has developed into a major selling point for university modern language departments across the UK as they seek to enrol students for language programmes in an increasingly challenging recruitment environment. A failure to remain part of the scheme in the 2021 to 2027 cycle would undoubtedly have a considerable impact on the state of language learning in UK universities with inevitable consequences for the number of students enrolling for language undergraduate programmes. In a recent report by the British Academy, Erasmus was described as providing ‘a critical pathway for language degrees and the promotion of languages, in a context of continuing decline in the number of students studying languages at secondary school and consequently at university.

The government has talked of a domestic alternative to Erasmus+, one which the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said in June could be an opportunity for a more international framework that would extend beyond universities in Europe.[i] While a global programme running parallel to Erasmus+ is an option for consideration, such a domestically funded programme instead of Erasmus makes little sense. Data from the Confederation for British Industry’s (CBI) Education and Annual Skill’s report published in November 2018 included a major survey of UK businesses, which revealed that it was still the major European languages that were in demand – with French mentioned by 54% of respondents, German 51% and Spanish 50%.

Withdrawing from the Erasmus+ scheme would only worsen the shortage of UK linguists studying European languages, with the knock-on negative effects for UK businesses and universities. The same CBI report concluded that ‘the need for languages has been heightened by the UK’s departure from the European Union’ and that ‘if there is a lack of wider provision of foreign languages for children, UK business will suffer and will be unable to seize global opportunities effectively.’ The stark reality is, however, that faced with the financial void caused by a lack of Erasmus funding, and unable to finance their undergraduates’ Year Abroad, some university language departments will, at best, be forced to ‘rationalise’ and at worst be forced to close! The knock-on effect of this is that it will make the task of recruiting sixth form ‘A’ level language students in UK schools and colleges ever-more challenging!

Time is running out for the UK government if it is serious about remaining within the Erasmus+ scheme’s 2021-27 cycle as a third party member similar to Norway or Iceland. To remain an influential player in the global economy post-Brexit, staying in the scheme seems like a no-brainer and yet…

Not remaining part of the Erasmus+ programme would not only have long-term economic consequences for UK businesses and universities, but it would also deprive a generation of young UK citizens (already about to lose their EU citizenship and with it their Freedom of Movement) of the rich, cultural and linguistic experience that Erasmus offers. We would also be jeopardising the opportunities of the 32,000 European students who come to the UK every year through the Erasmus scheme. None of this seems very European or very global. Rather, it feels insular and inward-looking.



[i] Joe Johnson, the Prime-Minister’s brother, and former universities minister (who recently became a peer in the House of Lords) has also made the case for a global scheme to replace Erasmus+ stating that a UK mobility scheme should include ‘the growing powers and developing nations of the world, from India and China to Nigeria and Brazil’