The Post-Brexit Educational Horizon

Scotland Europe Initiative
Publication Date
17/11/2023
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Knowledge in sound
The Post-Brexit Educational Horizon
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November 17 2023, by Professor Paul James Cardwell

Christmas 2020 was a very busy time for me. In between trying to make the most of the festive season whilst in lockdown, my email account was buzzing with requests for comment about the UK government’s decision to withdraw from the Erasmus+ scheme. In what is a normally quiet period for news, the decision resonated way beyond the confines of the higher education world.

The stated reason for the departure was the high cost of participation post-Brexit and the lack of value for money, plus unwillingness on the part of the Commission to carve out participation in certain parts of Erasmus+ (i.e. higher education exchanges) only.

In a sense, the move away from Erasmus+ came to encapsulate the post-Brexit, ‘Global Britain’ aspirations of the UK government. The consequence, however, was a departure from many years of institutional cooperation and a ‘cherished’ (according to the New York Times) scheme. The immediate reaction of the Scottish government to try to remain a part of Erasmus+ was also indicative of the sharp divisions over what Brexit promised, and what it was delivering.

Those in higher education who have worked closely with exchanges with Europe and the wider world were well-placed to warn that replacing the 30+ years of experience within Erasmus+ with a whole new scheme from scratch would be beset with problems. Many pointed to the significant issues experienced by non-EU member Switzerland when its Erasmus+ participation was ended in 2014 after a popular vote limiting immigration by EU citizens. The House of Commons Education Committee also recognised this difficulty, underpinning their view that continued participation in Erasmus+ as a third country would be the best outcome for the UK. Ministerial claims that overseas institutions were excited by the prospect of Turing were questioned since the funding for mobility applied only to outgoing students and not those coming to the UK.

Turing prospects

The launch of the Turing Scheme has not been without challenges, not least because of the bureaucracy involved and the lack of certainty for students and staff alike on future funding – not an issue with Erasmus+ due to the multiannual programming and financing arrangements.

Yet, it is probably too early to fully evaluate whether Turing meets expectations. First, a whole generation of young people were impacted by the pandemic in ways that previous generations have not experienced. Student mobility and the confidence to undertake periods abroad – for any reason – will take time to recover. Second, Turing is not a like-for-like replacement of Erasmus+ and the flexibility of the scheme, including, for example, short stays abroad, could prove beneficial in reaching a larger number of participants. Finally, some of the bureaucratic hurdles should reduce over time if there is a learning process which contributes to better practice between education institutions and those administering the scheme.

Rejoin Erasmus?

One question which is now being asked is whether a future UK government might try to rejoin Erasmus+. There are several potential challenges in doing so. Much depends on the health of the bilateral relationship between the UK and the EU and willingness for closer engagements. Whilst educational cooperation might be an easy ‘win’ in closer UK-EU relations, the cost aspect is still present. Erasmus+ is best known as a scheme for the exchange of higher education students, but over time it has evolved to focus on combatting youth unemployment and funding work-related placements. Unless a future UK government wants to reintegrate with the internal market and free movement of persons, which at present seems unlikely, then participation might depend on whether the Commission is willing to ‘carve out’ HE only.

Other challenges relate to how to engage UK students, especially since there is a ‘gap’ of recent Erasmus+ returnees who are able to sell the experience and, for staff, the positive impact on academic performance. On a practical level, the lack of free movement and need for visas to study in Europe is another indicator that poses a challenge for refocussing efforts. What’s more, assuming that Erasmus+ participation is possible again, would Turing also be retained as a supplementary scheme for global or short-term exchanges? These are not insurmountable challenges, but ones which a future government would need to carefully consider before committing.

Professor Paul James Cardwell was a keynote speaker at the fifth Scotland-Europe Initiative workshop on higher education. He is Professor of Law at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. He was previously Professor of Law at Strathclyde and City, University of London, and Lecturer/Reader at Sheffield. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Europa Institute, Edinburgh, and has been a Visiting Professor at Bologna, Sciences Po (Grenoble and Paris) and Zagreb.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

Find out more about the Scotland-Europe Initiative