The celebrated Erasmus Plus programme started as a large-scale exchange programme for university students across the EU. It also provides grants for a wide range of activities, including the opportunity for students to undertake work placements abroad and for teachers and education staff to attend training courses. In 2018, the European Commission adopted an ambitious proposal for the next phase, with a doubling of the budget to €30bn for the period 2021–2027.
With Brexit, the UK government decided not to participate further in Erasmus but to replace it with the home-grown Turing scheme. This means UK students have lost access to the Erasmus opportunities and EU students have lost access to UK universities.
Of all the decisions made by Boris Johnson and his government as they implemented their Brexit policies, this is possibly the one that left the French press most flabbergasted. Let’s take a look at a range of their reactions between December 2020 and April 2021.
On 27 December 2020, Libération, or ‘Libé’, a left-wing newspaper counting Jean-Paul Sartre among its founders, expresses its bafflement under the headline ‘Leaving Erasmus, London’s strange calculation’.(€)
It goes on say that “the least well-off will be the ones to suffer”. It sees no advantages to the Turing scheme, and concludes with an observation from a French student doing her Erasmus year at King’s College, London: “Even if new partnerships are created with universities on the continent, the attraction of smaller British universities is likely to drop […] British universities will become the preserve of students from élite French colleges who are certain to secure partnerships, and of better-off students”.
Le Figaro, a right-leaning daily, publishes a regular ‘Étudiant’ supplement. On 25 January 2021, it includes an analysis by Olivier Beddeleem, from the EDHEC business school, who argues that the UK was losing out under Erasmus for two reasons: European students coming to the UK didn’t have to pay the same high fees as British students, and there were about twice as many European students coming to Britain as there were British students going to EU countries. Beddeleem also notes the geopolitical dimension that might underpin the decision to leave: “With Brexit, the UK will be able to replace European Erasmus students with students from worldwide partner countries […] ‘Selected’ students, a diplomatic tool supporting advantageous trade agreements”.
The local press is widely read in France and Ouest-France has one of the highest circulation figures. Its stance has always been strongly pro-EU and on 27 January 2021, the paper reported Scottish unhappiness with the demise of Erasmus and its proposed replacement with Turing. The article describes the fight-back: “Scotland has found allies. Nearly 150 MEPs of all persuasions have just written to […] Ursula von der Leyen asking her to find an arrangement allowing young people from Scotland, but also Wales, to carry on benefiting from Erasmus.” However, it quotes Paul Cardwell, lecturer in European Law at Strathclyde University, who warns about potential hurdles as “these [devolved] governments are not allowed to sign international agreements”. The article reminds readers that Erasmus benefited not only students, but also apprentices and workers in on-the-job training, concluding, “it’s the cultural impact of leaving Erasmus which saddens Paul Cardwell most. Especially as the Scots find Brexit difficult to swallow”.
It is also the Scottish angle which appears in Mediapart, an independent online investigative and left-leaning opinion journal. No opinion piece from them yet, just a press release (€) about Turing on 12 March 2021 from Agence France-Presse, the international news agency headquartered in Paris. AFP observes that “for some, the new programme [Turing] is far from delivering on its promises to draw level with the previous one [Erasmus]”. It quotes Carol Monaghan, SNP MP, who considers that Turing “offers no tuition fees support, which can jump astronomically [and so it] is going to leave Scottish students worse off”, as there are no university fees for home students in Scotland.
As could be expected from the most respected of French dailies, there is an in-depth report (€) in Le Monde on the difficulties for UK universities, caught between the Covid pandemic, Brexit and leaving Erasmus. The article, published on 30 March 2021, quotes Paul Cardwell again: “Who knows whether the available money [under Turing] will, as Erasmus did, cover student fees and students’ accommodation abroad? Launching a new programme from zero, building new partnerships between universities: all this takes time.”
The article echoes Oliver Beddeleem’s analysis: “To compensate for what they fear will be a fall in the number of Europeans, universities might take a gamble on Indian and Chinese students from well-off backgrounds. But this strategy has its limitations.”
On 2 April 2021, France-Inter, a major French public radio channel and part of Radio France, reports that the number of French students enrolled at British universities has fallen sharply, in anticipation of Brexit and the British withdrawal from Erasmus. They interview Marielle André, who runs an Occupational Therapy course at Tours university. She laments the end of the exchange programme, which brought great benefits to her students as well as to their British partner institution in Brighton, from the point of view of both their language skills and their professional competences. The reporter ends on a fairly optimistic note as a number of universities in the EU already offer courses taught in English and are well placed to take over from UK universities.
Unsurprisingly, as Mike Zollo wrote on 28 March 2021 in West Country Bylines, it is enlightening, if sobering, to look at those issues from the other side of the Channel.
What runs through those accounts is twofold.
First of all, French journalists are in no doubt that leaving Erasmus was a hard-nosed decision dictated by short-term considerations like saving money, particularly the revenues foregone by high-fee-charging UK universities, and there was a diplomatic calculation which aimed to make use of student exchanges under Turing as bargaining chips when trying to negotiate trade deals outside the EU. Second, there is a sense that the UK government deliberately chose to turn its back on the less tangible, more long-term advantage of Erasmus, namely building solidarity from the bottom up at European level. That would be completely in keeping with a Brexit government deprioritising an in-depth trade deal with our nearest neighbours on the continent.
The consensus in the French press is that, eventually, universities and students will realign and adapt to the new reality but that many opportunities will have been lost along the way, on both sides.