Huw Irranca-Davies bemoans the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s student exchange programme and questions its proposed replacement.
As we slip somewhat clumsily out of the back-door of the EU, we have learned that the nations of the UK will no longer have access to the pool of educational exchange that Erasmus has provided.
This will come as a huge blow to the students of Wales, but also to the thousands of disadvantaged young people looking to venture abroad to enrich their learning.
As we depart from the multi-faceted and universally inclusive scheme that is Erasmus, we must ensure that its replacement replicates its ambitions in providing a ‘global edge’ to our citizens.
The scope of the Erasmus programme is far more than purely a medium of student exchange, it represents a ‘deepening of the internationalisation of learning’ at every level.
The scheme has seen an unprecedented increase in educational global cooperation, with more than 10,000 students and staff from Wales participating between the years 2014-2018 alone.
The provision of study abroad semesters are integral to the degree experience of many students, supplementing the cultural and language variations which are essential to becoming an active global citizen.
“Graduates who have been part of the scheme develop a greater understanding of foreign cultures and can serve as a bridge between Welsh culture and the global community.”
In Wales, the educational partnership has seen over 40 million Euros worth of investment since 2014, amounting to 248 projects being deployed in our nation. Reaffirming and building new academic partnerships is essential, but they will need to be built on the foundation of global and domestic inclusivity which Erasmus had provided.
Graduates who have been part of the scheme develop a greater understanding of foreign cultures and can serve as a bridge between Welsh culture and the global community. Through their propensity to learn a foreign language, they have built international networks, which are of benefit not just to them, but to Wales as a nation.
Further, the recipients of the programme are far more likely to have developed innovative skills; culminating in the development of new business profited by the networks formed whilst on post.
The benefits of these programmes may be invisible when playing a numbers game, but the rewards of this project advance and inspire the economic and cultural versatility of our nation.
Between 2021-2027, the European Commission has proposed to double the programme’s budget, alongside offering more short term and flexible options for studying abroad. These proposals target students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who without these provisions may lack the means to take part.
Prime Minister Johnson has implied that the Turing Scheme will enable low-income households to access the same opportunities, but as of yet the specifics are unknown.
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Replicating the provisions of Erasmus+ is a necessity; as enabling vocational and teaching based exchange through supplementary grants, will highlight the diverse ambitions of the project.
We must also implement work placement programmes, designed for those who would not be able to participate without a reliable source of income during their time spent abroad.
The UK Government has claimed that the Turing Scheme will target “not just European Universities, but the best Universities in the world”. The likelihood of disadvantaged households having the means to travel to Universities in North America, rather than more affordable European destinations must also be addressed.
As an outward looking nation, the new programme should realise what cooperative education networks give to us, but we must not neglect what we give in return. Bilateral education requires giving foreign students the ability to experience our own unique blend of learning, innovation and culture whilst studying at Cardiff, University of South Wales or Aberystwyth based institutions.
“Most disinterested observers would say that the UK government has made a grave error in deciding not to continue [with Erasmus].”
The two-directional nature of the Erasmus scheme has been overlooked by its replacement; therefore, cultural and academic transfer to our own institutions should be prioritised.
Through this, these “guests” of ours will build deep relationships with Wales, contribute to our cultural richness, and – I have seen it happen directly – even decided to stay here to grow their businesses, grow jobs, and grow their families.
Whilst the spending power of foreign students is rarely discussed, the diversity of ideas that enrich classrooms and communities is discussed rarer still.
To fully strive for a global educational outreach, we must realise the benefits of exporting our own cultural and academic prowess, alongside the importance of importing the prowess of others.
Our institutions’ attraction to foreign students rests on Erasmus students’ anecdotal experiences; unfortunately, vague slogans of ‘thinking globally’ will do little to replace this.
Erasmus is a huge loss to the UK and to Wales. Most disinterested observers would say that the UK government has made a grave error in deciding not to continue.
As such, we must make sure that the replacement is at least as powerful in the benefits it brings to individuals, and to employers and educational institutions.
For Wales as a nation, let alone for the UK, this is an acid test about how we see ourselves as an outward-facing and welcoming country, working with other nations to grow together.
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