Being an Erasmus student after Brexit: I was building this bridge as it was being knocked down
4 May 2023
For UK students, it's the end of the long-running Erasmus scheme, the European Union student exchange programme started in 1987. UCL Student Journalist Annika Schwarze, part of the last ever cohort coming to the UK for Erasmus, reflects on the end of this legendary programme.
The list of advantages of integrating a year abroad into one's studies is long: Living in a foreign country will brush up your language skills, and test your self-reliance and sense of personal responsibility. It’s the best way to experience new cultures and make friends for life. In Europe, the EU’s Erasmus programme stands like no other for cooperation between universities and financial support for student mobility.
But with its withdrawal from the European Union, the United Kingdom has also decided to turn its back on the Erasmus programme. Student Journalist Annika Schwarze is part of the last Erasmus cohort to study at UCL. Here, she reflects on the scheme and what the future might hold for it.
I still remember very well the day in September last year when I arrived at Heathrow Airport with nothing more than a backpack – and, unusually, without a return ticket. I will spend the next 10 months as an Erasmus student at University College London – and not at my home university in Berlin. Since the United Kingdom’s existing Erasmus projects will end in May 2023, I’ll be one of the last Erasmus students to ever make my way to the UK.
Counting down the days until my departure, I was buzzing to finally live in the country that I already got to know on many previous trips. I was looking forward to going to as many gigs and football matches as possible and – since I’m a sucker for British politics (true friends may remember my Liz Truss Halloween costume) I couldn't wait to finally swap the livestream on my laptop for the Palace of Westminster to watch parliamentary debates on the spot. But despite the anticipation, I quickly realised that my Erasmus experience was going to be very different from that of my friends who went to Spain, France or Poland.
"96% of Erasmus students are happy to have participated in the programme"
Erasmus is a success story: Established in 1987 by the European Union as an exchange programme for university students, the “European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students”, for which the acronym stands, now encompasses a wide range of funding opportunities in higher education, vocational education and training, school education, adult education, youth and sport. Its aim is to support the development of people in Europe through lifelong learning, contributing to sustainable growth, quality jobs and social cohesion, promoting innovation and strengthening European identity and active citizenship.
Since its inception, Erasmus has been a huge success, with more than twelve million people taking advantage of the opportunity to spend time abroad. This is made possible by an incredible budget of an estimated £23 billion per year. Surveys conducted since 2014 also show how positively students view the experience, with 96% saying they are glad they participated in the programme – even employers prefer applicants who have participated in Erasmus – not to mention some students who like to use the programme as an excuse to take an extended and EU-subsidised holiday in Spain (the iconic Erasmus film clearly shows what can go wrong).
"The goal of consolidating a European identity – is far from a reality for me"
UCL itself has welcomed around 300 Erasmus students every year. Now I am one of the last to be able to study here and receive financial support from the European Union. The official withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU was three years ago, and the climate towards European students has already changed drastically. The much-cited goal of the EU, to impart a European sense of belonging to Erasmus students during their stay in another country, plays almost no role anymore.
Unlike my friends who went to other European countries, I had to deal with the application for a student visa, which was not only extremely cost-intensive, but also required the most personal details about me and my family. Items that I had sent to the UK as part of my move had to be meticulously documented on the customs declaration and import duties paid, and before I could finally take up a simple job on the side in London, I had to undergo a tedious right-to-work check.
What the Erasmus programme advertises so strongly, the consolidation of a European identity, is far from a reality for me. This is hard to bear when you have grown up with the privileges of the free movement of persons, and suddenly find yourself deprived of these rights in a country that no longer wants you here.
"I learned a lot about other countries and cultures that I never would have known otherwise – Erasmus was 100% instrumental for that"
British Erasmus students abroad have similar experiences. I spoke to Victoria, who studies Sociology at Durham University and spent the 2021/2022 academic year in Utrecht, the Netherlands. “As I’m a Sociology student, I found it interesting to see how people stayed in groups or spread out – and how culture and nationality made a difference. If you have a party, there was always this expectation that the Spanish students would show up much later because in their culture, they eat their meals a lot later”, Victoria said. “I learned a lot about other countries and cultures that I never would have known – Erasmus was 100% instrumental for that.”
But despite it being a fantastic experience, Victoria also felt left out sometimes during her stay. While she is convinced that the Erasmus programme builds a sense of community, she often felt that, as a UK national, she wasn’t a part of it. “I also studied International Development, where the EU was discussed a lot in a context of not applying to me, so there even was a mental separation. My class took a trip to the European Commission in Brussels once and there also was a physical separation, as I had to go through more security. This definitely showed me that as much as I was growing this European identity, at the same time, the situation with the UK government and the EU was also pulling me away. I was building this bridge as it was being knocked down.”
“If it wasn’t for Brexit, I would have felt a European sense of belonging even more. I definitely feel more connected to Europe than I ever did before, but Brexit interfered with it because I had such a different experience to EU students: I needed a visa, I couldn’t work and I had to get my passport and residence permit checked whenever I crossed the border.”
"The core premise and beautiful thing about Erasmus is that it brings people together – ending the scheme feels like the opposite"
Now, Victoria is part of the executive team that welcomes Erasmus students to Durham University, making them feel as welcome in the UK as she felt in the Netherlands. “I’m glad to still meet people at my home university because of Erasmus,” she tells me. When I ask her how she feels about the fact that British participation in the Erasmus programme is coming to an end in May, she is disappointed. “It makes me really sad! Erasmus is probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I do know people who have done the Turing scheme and it does sound like a decent replacement – but I don’t think it’s going to help with the separation in European identity, so the experience will be different. I think the core premise and beautiful thing about Erasmus is that it brings people together, and ending the scheme feels like the opposite.”
The Turing Scheme is something I keep coming across in my research. The UK government launched this new scheme in 2021 to replace the Erasmus Programme for UK institutions. Named after Alan Turing – British code-breaker and mathematician – the scheme will provide an annual £110 million in funding for 35,000 students from schools, colleges and universities across the UK to go on placements, in Europe and beyond, with additional support for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. This will include providing participants with grants to help cover travel expenses and costs of living, broadly in line with what was on offer under the Erasmus Programme.
"At UCL, we have always recognised the importance of outbound mobility to student success"
UCL alone received £1.5 million in funding through the new scheme in the 2021/2022 academic year – an important contribution to its global strategy. Professor Stella Bruzzi, Dean of UCL’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities and chair of UCL’s Study Abroad Working Group, says: “At UCL, we have always recognised the importance of outbound mobility to student success; education will always be enriched by an international component and we are committed to providing a range of opportunities for our students to broaden their university experience by going abroad to immerse themselves in the cultures and languages of others. We are delighted to have been awarded this funding.”
But unlike the Erasmus Programme, the Turing Scheme is not set up to create reciprocal arrangements. This means that, in effect, European students are unable to come to the UK for a study placement unless the swap is arranged by individual universities outside of the scheme. It’s predicted that because of this, the number of European students coming to the UK will fall over time – given they will now be expected to pay much higher fees than before.
UCL Geography Professor Johanna Waters admonishes in an article for The Conversation, that “the new scheme must also cater for incoming students. At the moment, it makes no discernible provision for this, neglecting the substantial value – social, cultural and economic – that international students on short-term placements bring to higher education and society more broadly.”
"The Turing scheme must address losses if it is to replicate or even improve upon the opportunities that the Erasmus programme provided"
Johanna emphasizes that over 30,000 students and trainees have come to the UK through Erasmus each year, spending money on food, accommodation and leisure – but the spending power of international students is rarely discussed. Instead, there is a constant focus on the costs of educating them in the UK, which highlights a wider problem – that international students, their contributions and worth to the UK, remain largely invisible. “Future incoming students will rely on arrangements between institutions, and will not receive the financial incentives, including the tuition fee waiver, that Erasmus provided. Initial indications suggest that scrapping the UK’s involvement in Erasmus will have negative impacts on students’ experiences in the short and longer-term. Study abroad can be life-changing for students,” says Johanna. “The proposed Turing scheme must address these losses if it is to replicate or even improve upon the opportunities that the Erasmus programme provided for UK students.”
"There is a great appetite that the UK remains a key part of European science"
After all, in July 2021, UCL President and Provost, Dr Michael Spence hosted former European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Carlos Moedas, and research leaders from across Europe for a roundtable discussion on shaping the EU-UK research agenda. During the roundtable they discussed the importance of deepening European collaboration, including through mobility opportunities. “This event was a timely opportunity to reflect on how UK and European research leaders can strengthen and maintain cooperation, post-Brexit,” Dr Spence says. “Discussions made clear our shared commitment to developing sustainable partnerships, as well as our responsibility to jointly advocate for the values of openness and international exchange across borders”.
Meanwhile, UCL European Institute Executive Director and Pro-Vice-Provost for Europe, Dr Uta Staiger, adds: “We were delighted to convene such an important discussion on the future of European research. There is a huge amount to be played for in strengthening collaborations and a great appetite that the UK remains a key part of European science and endeavour.”
I have been living here for six months now. In this time, I’ve been to 24 concerts and five major football matches. I was able to deal intensively with the British political system academically and benefited from the outstanding teaching quality at UCL – and I grasped the cultural significance of Cadbury's Creme Eggs. I have risen a little bit above myself every day through challenges, big or small. Studying in the UK for a year was probably the best decision of my life. But it was the financial support of the Erasmus programme that made it possible for me to fulfil this dream. While British students will continue to be able to study abroad through the Turing Scheme, European students will no longer have this privilege.
While the British government has recently been increasingly targeting international students from India, South Asia and Nigeria, it is closing doors to mainland Europe that have been open for decades. The country may no longer be part of the European Union, but it remains part of Europe. What the Erasmus programme has achieved so magnificently – social cohesion – must also be guaranteed in the future to ensure respectful coexistence in our neighbouring European countries. And therefore, it always takes two.
About the author:
Annika Schwarze is a second-year Affiliate student in the European and International Social and Political Studies (EISPS) department, on her year abroad from the Free University of Berlin. A huge music enthusiast, she started a music blog in Germany as a way to break into music journalism, and has since worked in the radio and social media industries. She hopes to use her experience as a VPEE student journalist to gain experience writing in English about the issues that interest her.
Image attribution (when not belonging to UCL):
- Erasmus+ logo credit: Halitkya on Wikimedia
- Image of Erasmus + students in Utrecht courtesy of Victoria (interviewed for this article)