Image of students wearing hats
Hats off to Student Mobility. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

March 2018

The debate over the details of the UK’s future collaboration with the EU is at a critical stage.  Emma Skelton reports on a recent expert seminar on the future of UK-EU partnerships for higher education.

The Future of the EU-UK Partnership on Higher Education

The British Council and the Centre for European Policy Studies recently convened a high-level policy dialogue in Brussels on ‘The Future of the EU-UK Partnership on Higher Education and Student Mobility’.  This was part of a series of events between key EU and UK policymakers and influencers examining the implications of Brexit for existing collaboration in the sectors of international development, culture and education.  

Much discussion at the event focussed on the Erasmus+ programme.  Erasmus+ is the largest provider of student mobility for British students to countries in Europe and beyond.  Contributors to the seminar  highlighted the importance of the UK to the scheme as a whole, as one of the most popular destination countries, which speakers attributed in part to the excellent reputation of UK universities. They also emphasised the call from British companies for more talent with international experience, intercultural awareness and language skills, which can all be gained through mobility programmes such as Erasmus+.

The UK Government’s preferred position is that UK participation in some EU programmes ‘promoting science, education and culture’ should continue after the UK’s exit from the EU, subject to the ongoing negotiations. Those present noted that five non-EU countries participating in the Erasmus+ program as full members, but that, even if the UK were to continue as a full member of the programme, there may be two further obstacles to the UK collaborating with the EU on higher education and student mobility after Brexit. The first was that if international student fees were applied to EU students, the tuition costs would increase dramatically, which could reduce levels of interest in studying in the UK. The second was the risk that students on mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ could be treated as ‘migrant students’ rather than ‘mobile students’ for immigration purposes, which would have repercussions on their healthcare, social security and other rights, making the UK a less attractive study destination.  Addressing these issues in the Brexit negotiations will be important.  

As well as 18,000 university students studying languages, every year Erasmus+ funds 10,000 British vocational education and training students to get foreign work placements directly linked to their vocational qualifications, as well as 7,500 young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, to acquire a volunteering experience abroad

Although much of the discussion centred on Erasmus+ as a vehicle for student mobility at university level, it is worth noting that Erasmus+ spans education, training, youth and sport, offering opportunities for British participants to study, work, volunteer, teach and train in Europe and beyond. It covers school education, further and higher education, adult education and the youth sector. As well as 18,000 university students studying languages, every year Erasmus+ funds 10,000 British vocational education and training students to get foreign work placements directly linked to their vocational qualifications, as well as 7,500 young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, to acquire a volunteering experience abroad.

The seminar also included consideration of the benefits of international mobility for the British economy and for social mobility. This part of the debate is worth expanding upon, at a time when the skills shortage and social mobility are high on the agendas of both British businesses and the UK government, and businesses are calling for a ‘more global outlook’ in prospective employees, along with soft skills and language capabilities. The current environment of uncertainty has repercussions on student mobility. The sooner a firm and transparent solution is found, the better.

Protecting the Benefits of Erasmus

There is good evidence for the effectiveness of Erasmus+. Those that take part in the scheme benefit from better job prospects and lower unemployment than students who don’t. They are 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment, and 3 years after the end of their stay abroad participants in vocational education and training placements through Erasmus+ have a higher employment rate (81% vs 68%). Interestingly, the scheme appears to benefit participants in the long term too. Five to ten years after graduation, significantly more Erasmus+ alumni than non-mobile alumni hold a management position.

International experiences like Erasmus+ placements lead not only to the development of a more ‘global outlook’ but also to the improvement of key skills desired by UK employers

These findings support research by CFE Research and the London School of Economics for the British Council which has indicated that international experiences like Erasmus+ placements lead not only to the development of a more ‘global outlook’ but also to the improvement of key skills desired by UK employers. This includes the development of leadership and teamwork skills, enhanced language abilities, and increased capabilities in areas like critical thinking.

Interestingly, in 2014-15, British people from disadvantaged backgrounds comprised 55% of all those awarded Erasmus+ funding for volunteering or youth exchanges and 30% of all vocational learners awarded funding for training abroad. In this context, Erasmus+ could also be seen as an important vehicle for equipping young people from all backgrounds with the competencies required to compete in a global economy, and providing British employers with the skills they need. 

As well as equipping participants with the skills they need, programmes that facilitate outward mobility such as Erasmus+ are contributors to long term influence and soft power by building trust. By studying or working in the UK, participants coming from overseas learn about the UK and build connections that last long after they return home. Participation in cultural activities such as educational exchanges is associated with an increase in trust, and this in turn is associated with an increased interest in doing business with the UK, visiting the UK as a tourist and studying in the UK.

The policy seminar concluded with almost universal agreement that continued UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme would provide a win-win situation for both the UK and the EU. However, the panellists expressed concerns that the issue could become a bargaining chip in the negotiations, which could lead to a less beneficial outcome for both sides.  Panellists and participants spoke unanimously about the importance of safeguarding the opportunities for students that have been built up over the past decades and agreed that these should continue after the UK leaves the European Union. Erasmus+ can be an important tool for a successful collaborative relationship between the EU and the UK in the future.

Emma Skelton, Policy and External Relations Officer, British Council

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