Labour and Co-operative Member of
Parliament for Kemptown and Peacehaven

Erasmus + Debate

by Lloyd on 21.04.18 in news
Almost two years on from the EU referendum, the government has not yet answered key questions: such as how will we continue to co-operate with EU programmes after 2020? The British government can’t afford to duck this issue, because that would put at risk the future openness and vibrancy of our university and youth sector.
Almost two years on from the EU referendum, the government has not yet answered key questions: such as how will we continue to co-operate with EU programmes after 2020? The British government can’t afford to duck this issue, because that would put at risk the future openness and vibrancy of our university and youth sector.

Mr Speaker, I beg to move.

That this house urges the government to negotiate continued access to the Erasmus plus program and all its successors schemes beyond 2020.

Almost two years on from the EU referendum, the government has not yet answered key questions: such as how will we continue to co-operate with EU programmes after 2020? The British government can’t afford to duck this issue, because that would put at risk the future openness and vibrancy of our university and youth sector.

I applied for this debate because I wanted to bring this issue to the Chamber for the first time in five years. I’ve also done this in the hope of getting assurances from the government that it will give a full commitment to preserving the scheme after it comes up for renewal in 2020.

I am aware that the issue of Brexit hangs over this debate, as it currently does over so many other decisions in this house. However, I want to stress that this is an issue that cuts across party-political or pro and anti-Brexit lines. I gained support for this debate from members of all parties in this house, from 2017 intake to the father of the house, and representing constituencies in all four nations of the UK. What united them was a deep concern about the lack of a full commitment from this government to maintaining the Erasmus Plus scheme after the program is renegotiated for 2020,

What is at stake here is the future existence of one of our most successful exports, an export which has greatly enriched this country, and whether we maintain an open and accessible higher education sector.

Erasmus is a valuable resource that contributes a vast amount to the scope and depth of British Universities and those who study there. The Erasmus plus scheme as it exists now came into being in 2014, incorporating numerous educational initiatives such as the Socrates Program, Erasmus, Leonardo, Grundtvig and youth in action which date back as far as 1987. With a budget of 14.7 billion Euros, Erasmus is an educational scheme with a truly continental reach. Its schemes cover all aspects of education, training, youth and sport organisations across every sector of lifelong learning. Most experts agree that Erasmus has had a positive impact. Research has shown that 81% of UK students who studied aboard under the scheme go on to achieve either a first class and upper second in their degree, almost 10% higher than average.

Such schemes have been taken up by young people from across the continent. At least 2 million young people across the continent have gone through an Erasmus scheme over the past 30 years, 600,000 of which were young people and students from the UK. Its individual schemes last between one week and a year, and all studies show that Erasmus improves the skillsets and employability of those who go through it.

Being an alumnus of University of Sussex and having parts of the university within my constituency it would be remiss of me not to mention the important roll it played in the founding of Erasmus, Hywel Ceri Jones served as the director of Education and Training Policy at the European Commission for 20 years at the beginning of the programme. In a recent speech he stated  “I proposed the idea of developing a joint study programme as a result of my personal experience when working previously at University of Sussex. [Where it] had broken new ground in the UK by providing organised opportunities for all its students whatever their major discipline, to pursue a year abroad as an integral and recognised part of their degree programme.” He said, “I was convinced that such an idea could be developed on a European-wide basis”. That idea become Erasmus and what is now part of Erasmus Plus.

So Mr Speaker, from Sussex University an idea was born, an idea we have seen enhanced the learning from so many, right up to today students like Amy Walker who graduated with a BA Geography and International Development from Sussex she says “I spent six months living and studying in Amsterdam, and I believe they were among the most formative, productive and happiest months of my life. I am under no doubt that without my time in Amsterdam I would not be where I am today. Amsterdam was where I fell in love with studying. The unfamiliarity of the disciplinary and broader academic environment I was exposed to during my Erasmus period motivated me study harder and understand deeper.”

Or students like Ifat Shaltiel who studied a BA English Language Teaching & Italian and Spanish from Sussex who said “Every person I have met that has had the opportunity to participate in the Erasmus programme cannot praise the experience enough, even if at times tough, it is considered it to be enormously valuable.” She says her year spent in Italy with Erasmus significantly influenced her personal direction in life.

There are many other case studies from Sussex and from around the UK. University UK last month launched here in parliament their “Go International” initiative outlining the key reasons why international exchange is vital for our economy, our education sector and our young people. The Minister for Universities spoke so ably at that meeting on the importance of exchange but to follow those good words we need good actions to secure that position, a position I think we all share.

It is not just university exchange which is a key part of the programme, for 20 years the European Voluntary Service has allowed young Europeans to volunteer across the continent and globally for anything up to a year. This scheme has reached out to some of the most disadvantaged youth, with 50% of participants from disadvantaged backgrounds. The EVS is in many ways the for-runner of the International Citizenship Service. I remember applying for EVS grants (when I was head of the Woodcraft Folk) to help young people from UK coalfield towns to volunteer in Lithuania, Senegal, and Germany to name but a few. The commission proposes to merge this into a new European Solidary Copts as a new programme to get young people volunteering. We have heard almost nothing on this issue about the government’s intention to partake in this successor part of the Erasmus plus programme.

Mr Speaker, Erasmus is currently being negotiated for renewal after 2020 by European countries, after which there are currently no clear guarantees from the government on its future. This is adding to the great uncertainty about just how committed this government is to the programme.

Now, while the Prime Minister gave assurances at the end of last year that that Erasmus would be maintained until the end of its current financial arrangements in 2020, there have been few if any assurances about what we will sign up or even be able to sign up to after that date.

In December, the government confirmed that they value international exchanges, and that in the event of a “no deal” scenario, applications submitted before the date of the UK’s departure will still be honoured. In her Florence speech last September, the Prime Minister said that the government’s preferred position is that the UK would participate in some EU programmes that promote science, education and culture, and that the government might consider contributing to the Multi-Annual Financial Framework, or MFF, through which Erasmus Plus is funded. This, however, provides no assurances on the UKs involvement.

The year in which the next round of the Erasmus will be finalised is the same year in which planned transitional period will end, and yet with the clock ticking down there is no certainty to be had on where the UK stands on its involvement in the scheme. Whilst no one on the government side is currently suggesting a full withdrawal from Erasmus, the indications that have been given on this have not been particularly encouraging.

Erasmus programs come in five broad categories: study, work, volunteering, teaching and training, all of which contribute to the overall depth and quality of the scheme. But it is here where we see that the future of Erasmus as a comprehensive program is at risk. While the government has suggested that that it wants to guarantee continued access for students and those on study courses both to and from the EU, which is certainly something that I believe should be done, it currently does not give those same assurances to educational and administrative staff travelling to and from the UK under this scheme or to any youth or sports project.

Such a move would be to the detriment of the whole scheme. According to data from the British Council there are:

  • over 22 hundred UK University Staff,
  • 16 hundred school staff,
  • 500 youth and vocational education staff and
  • 300 adult education staff

All have benefited from professional development programs abroad. These schemes are often part of a joined-up strategy with student schemes, and the exclusion of these schemes could have a negative impact on the quality and accessibility of the other parts of the scheme.

In January, organisations involved in the program were quoted as saying that this current stance risks the UK’s position as part of the scheme, and 5 months on from the Prime Ministers initial assurances and a year on from when I made my first intervention in this Chamber, on this very issue we are still no clearer about where the government is.

The government’s current policy represents a great risk to the future of the whole Erasmus scheme. If we maintain only partial access, what is to stop a drop in the student part of the scheme if there is no corresponding staff support to help facilitate it?

In the Westminster Hall debate that I secured earlier this year, I was told by the DCMS Minister that no decisions had yet been made on post-2020 participation and that they will be discussed in phase 2 of the negotiations. She indicated that proposals will be published later this year. I am still waiting to receive the UK’s strategy on this.

Whilst we have been prevaricating, the EU has in the last month published it’s proposals for the future of the scheme but we are still waiting for a political strategy from our government on area. Whilst the proposal from the European Union is to maintain the scheme broadly in line with the past the ability for non-EU, non-EEA, non-candidate or partner countries to take part in the scheme is severely limited. The Government must use it’s current position in the council to ensure these clauses enable a UK outside of the EU and possibly outside of the EEA to fully take part in the Erasmus Scheme. So therefore, can I ask the minister what discussions has he had in the education council to ensure this clause can reflect the continued access, what instructions has the minister given his officials to negotiate on these access clauses, and what communications has his department had with other European counterparts on these issues and what coordination has he had with the Department for Exiting the EU?

Many of the questions that I raised in Westminster Hallall have still not been resolved. How will our current domestic programmes intertwine and co-operate with a future Erasmus programme? How will the International Citizen Service and National Citizen Service work in harmony with any future European programmes? We need clarity on these issues if we are to reassure the education and youth sector.

The evidence suggests that Brexit does not have to be an impediment to maintaining full access to the scheme but this cannot be done without negotiation. Non-EU countries such as Turkey and Macedonia are partner members to the full scheme without being members of the European Union.

I fear without proper negotiations we will have buy in for access like Canada. Canadian undergraduates do not have access to the full exchange part of the university sector and youth organisation in Canada are unable to initiate programs. With so many international youth organisations’ HQs here in the UK, such as the girl guides (WAGGGS) we risk their future if we don’t negotiate to allow for full access.

To resolve these issues will require greater clarity and direction, and an acknowledgement of the great benefits of Erasmus Plus for the UK, in terms of our soft power and as a valuable domestic and export economy to Europe and beyond.

In the meantime, if the government hopes to maintain a Youth and University sector that is open to co-operation with other universities, it should start by offering a full and comprehensive assurance that Erasmus Plus and all the related programmes will be maintained beyond 2020. It should seek to represent the UK’s interests forcefully in the current negotiations on Erasmus Plus in Brussels, and it must ensure that funding will be maintained at its current levels, whatever the outcome of the negotiations.

Finally, I would like to emphasize some of the great things that the Erasmus scheme has done to change lives for the better.

Some 16,000 students, young people and other staff from the UK go through the scheme year-on year. More than 50% of those on the youth programme of Erasmus Plus come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The youth part of the programme supports half the people in Erasmus, but only amounts to 10% of the cost. If we fail to look at the programme as a whole, some if its most valued aspects might be lost.

Therefore, Mr Speaker, I urge the government to negotiate continued access to the Erasmus+ programme and all its successors, not after Brexit day, but now.

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Labour and Co-operative Member of
Parliament for Kemptown and Peacehaven

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