What will Brexit mean for the future of European student mobility?

The UK government’s stance on immigration will likely cost British students their access to Erasmus+. How will UK universities keep their students thinking globally post-Brexit?
As Brexit negotiations gather momentum, the time has arrived when we must consider how we can successfully navigate the next two years. The UK must think about how we will fill the Brussels shaped void, the implications of which will soon start to become clear. It’s a void that will loom large in my professional life as my colleagues and I consider the future of European student mobility without the Erasmus+ programme.

If the results of the referendum caught us by surprise, I’m determined that we will be prepared for any outcome that the negotiations deliver. And, moreover, that along with other stakeholders, we take an active role in helping fill that void and shape it into something that can be a worthy successor to Erasmus. I was recently invited to take part in an excellent workshop “Projecting Bristol and Britain to a Post-Brexit World” organised by Dr Nieves Perez-Solorzano and Professor Michelle Cini from the University of Bristol. This was a good opportunity to start thinking about how we can proactively participate in Brexit discussions and this short piece considers some of those ideas with regards to international student mobility.

Building a global outlook

Erasmus has been one of the European Commission’s flagship programmes and certainly one of its success stories. Celebrating its 30th birthday this year, almost three million students have benefitted from the funding it offers to spend part of their degree working or studying in another European country. The University of Bristol alone sends and receives over 700 Erasmus students each year. We collaborate with nearly 100 partner institutions throughout the continent. We receive close to a million euros of funding to support the programme, most of which goes directly to students in the form of a grant. Add in the figures from other local universities, such as University of the West of England and Bath, and you start to get a picture of the interconnectedness that Erasmus helps to create and sustain in our universities and city.

International mobility is an invaluable opportunity, enriching the lives of our students by broadening and internationalising their education.

International mobility is an invaluable opportunity, enriching the lives of our students by broadening and internationalising their education. It helps them develop the all-important soft skills making them more employable. Seeing our students return from their time abroad is a constant delight in our office, as the changes we see in them are significant! Self-assurance and confidence has been developed, views and opinions rearranged and ordered into a global mindset that makes for tremendous employees, innovators and citizens. They are students that the University of Bristol is proud to consider as their alumni. Erasmus is unique because it gives us a framework in which to operate, one that can cross language barriers to support projects and partnerships. For students, it provides a generous grant to help with travel and living costs and enables many students to study abroad who otherwise might not have been able to consider it.

Many of these previously mobile graduates choose to stay in Bristol, which has one of the highest graduate retention rates of all UK cities. That represents a big bonus to our city in providing graduate employees and entrepreneurs who have a good understanding of the global world in which we live and who have some of the skills that they need to navigate it effectively. There are clear benefits to the city of Bristol that stem from Erasmus. Perhaps most obviously economic, as these students both spend and earn money but also the cultural vibrancy that makes our city such an incredible place to live and work in. Within our universities they contribute to the international dimension in our classrooms and support a diverse student body.

Life after Erasmus

We should be confident that Brexit won’t signal the end of UK-European mobility. Student mobility take places in countries outside of Europe, illustrating that most universities have other frameworks that they can utilise and which for the most part, UK universities are just as successful at working with. With some careful consideration and a proactive approach from the higher education sector and Westminster we can provide some alternatives that will work just as well, if not better than, Erasmus.

The Swiss provided a helpful precedent when they masterminded an Erasmus tandem programme after their own photo-finish immigration referendum and subsequent expulsion from Erasmus in 2014. Within an astonishing six weeks the Swiss European Mobility Programme (SEMP) had funding approved and was up and running. Although numbers participating in the exchange took a small dip in the face of uncertainty they recovered very quickly. Swiss universities will readily admit that SEMP isn’t perfect and that they are actively trying to negotiate a way back to Erasmus but it has worked and provided an adequate replacement!

Erasmus promotes student mobility within Europe but maybe this misses the point that global mobility is also worth supporting.

Developing a tandem programme should be relatively straightforward for the UK. We have some prominent organisations, such as Universities UK and the Russell Group that can represent us and provide a strong lobbying voice. There are many UK universities, Bristol included, that whole-heartedly support student mobility and who will be prepared to offer their expertise to support the sector in finding alternatives.

This unique moment in time also provides an opportunity to critically assess Erasmus and consider whether there are elements that might be improved. As almost any Erasmus administrator will admit, a flaw of the programme is its bureaucracy. Brussels loves paperwork and cutting down on it is an obvious way of streamlining mobility for both universities and students. Other elements for reflection are the geographic scope of a replacement programme and the profile of students that any grant supports. The nature of Erasmus promotes student mobility within Europe but maybe this misses the point that global mobility is also worth supporting.

The students most impacted by the disappearance of Erasmus will be those from low income households who rely on additional financial support to make study abroad attainable. A report by the UK Higher Education International Unit’s Go International programme on the value of mobility shows that students from a managerial and professional occupation background are five times more likely to be mobile, whilst students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from minority ethnic groups are less likely to go abroad. If these students also lose access to grants that support mobility the gap is bound to widen. As universities invest more into their widening participation policies international mobility should be recognised as an important route to supporting attainment and employability outcomes.

Having said all this, it’s not yet a certainty that we will lose Erasmus. Non-EU member states, such as Turkey and Norway, are active participants in the scheme and David Davis and his team of negotiators may yet manage to secure our continued involvement. Going by the Swiss example, Erasmus will be a hostage to the outcome of immigration and free movement discussions. Whilst the UK continues to hold an uncompromising position in this area I won’t be holding my breath for a positive outcome regarding Erasmus, and energy might be more usefully spent preparing alternatives such a tandem programme along the lines of SEMP. If we are able to retain our participation in Erasmus, careful thought needs to be given as to how the relationship with the European Commission works and where the funding for the programme comes from.

Brexit will not stop mobility

What we should remember is that European mobility will happen with or without Erasmus. We have university exchanges in Europe that are based on a relationship of trust, shared experiences and goals. These partnerships will stand firm and continue to grow and develop.

Despite a level of optimism about European student mobility I still hold onto the hope that, through these negotiations, the realisation will dawn on Westminster that Brexit is unachievable. That the legal tangle cannot be undone and that inclusion in Europe offers all of us, particularly Generation Y and Z, a better and brighter future. Their voice wasn’t heard in the referendum and the potential loss of Erasmus reflects just one of the many opportunities that may disappear.

#BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit
#BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit is a free public event at @Bristol on the 23rd of May from 10.00-13.00. The event, organised by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the University of the West of England and the University of Bath brings together stakeholders, practitioners, activists, educators, business people, city officials, religious leaders, and charity representatives to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges of uncertainty brought about by Bristol. The event will feature a series of interactive formats to bring representatives from across the city together to develop new and innovative strategies for taking Bristol into the future.
About the author

Beverley Orr-Ewing is Head of Global Opportunities at the University of Bristol.

This article has been written by a participant in the #BristolBrexit – a city responds to Brexit initiative. The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the University of Bristol or the funders of the organisers’ research.

This article was first published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.