Erasmus – Why Change A Winning Formula?

At the end of last year, David Johnston, who replaced Ed Vaizey as Wantage MP in 2019, wrote a piece for The Spectator, outlining what he believed were the shortcomings of the Erasmus scheme – and why the government’s proposed replacement (Turing) would be so much better.

In this article, Dr Alice Prochaska* counters his claims with a detailed defence of the ground-breaking scheme that has been widening the horizons for young people for over 30 years.

In January 2020 he promised that the cherished, dynamic and long-lasting international exchange programme Erasmus+ would be protected in his negotiations with the EU. In December he ended the UK’s involvement in it, citing costs as his reason and stating that more EU students come to Britain than UK students go to Europe, which means that the UK “loses out”. 

The Prime Minister’s explanation of why he jettisoned Erasmus (which has been a greatly expanded Erasmus+ scheme since 2014 and is set to expand in its 2021-27 programme with doubled investment from the EU) ignores so much benefit that a “global Britain” would gain from continuing the scheme, that it is difficult to know where to begin. 

The new Turing programme, presented as a replacement, undoubtedly will fill much of the gap but as it is new, untested and not yet fully designed, it is difficult to assess its likely impact.

Let’s start with costs and value for money.   The UK has invested tens of millions in Erasmus since the programme began in 1987, and the EU’s total annual investment in Erasmus+, running at approximately €14.7 billion annually, is set to increase to €30 billion per year for the period 2021-2027. 

In the 2014-20 phase of Erasmus+, almost €1 billion (around £900 million) has been spent on UK-based projects involving over 930,000 participants of many nationalities.  Over thirty non-EU countries have participants in Erasmus + programmes and, as the British Council’s Erasmus+ website graphically illustrates, the projects funded cover an incredibly wide range of work of social value and inclusiveness. 

According to the Financial Times, the figures for 2020 were €145 million in grants for UK-led Erasmus opportunities, with the participation of 54,619 people.  The amount announced for the Turing scheme is £100 million (equivalent to around €110 million).

What return now will this country derive from its sunk investment in the Erasmus programme? What does it stand to lose in income from the university and college fees and expenditure on living costs of Erasmus+ students, apprentices and other trainees living in Britain?

Much of this loss is impossible to assess in numbers, but the loss of several hundred thousand pounds in fees for student placements at British universities alone will be only a small fraction of overall losses. Nor does a basic assessment of costs take account of those incurred by universities and many other organisations in setting up special Erasmus offices, designing projects and developing staff expertise in the processes involved.   

It is to be hoped that the Turing programme will support institutions and individuals in transferring some of their investment and hard-won experience into new projects but inevitably there will be bureaucratic obstacles and new costs.

The Erasmus programme stands for so much more than a simple balance of numeric costs and benefits, addressing the price of university and other fees, and totting up the numbers of British students involved in exchanges compared with those from other countries. 

Erasmus of Rotterdam spent some years in England at the dawn of the modern humanist era and taught at Cambridge University as well as universities in continental Europe. His life and philosophical teachings showed that the exchange of ideas, learning other languages and values, becoming immersed in cultures other than one’s own, are vectors of tolerance and civilisation.   

Huge numbers of individuals and groups who have benefited from today’s Erasmus testify to this personally and in moving detail, both on web sites of the Erasmus+ programme itself and the British Council, and on the pages of universities and colleges throughout the United Kingdom. There you can find inspiring examples involving people from not only Europe but around the world, in European-designed projects.

The sub-programme  “Capacity building in the field of youth”, running from 2014 to 2020, uses the slogan “Enriching lives. Opening minds”.  Its aims are: reducing unemployment especially among young people; promoting adult learning especially as needed by the labour market; encouraging young people to take part in European democracy; reducing early school leaving; and promoting cooperation and mobility with the EU’s partner countries.

Successful projects described on these sites draw on  decades of programme building and cooperation by generations of people all over Europe and beyond, who have shared and given life to the vision described in cold print on their institutional web sites.  From a UK point of view, the benefits in terms of soft power have been incalculable. Benefits not only to individual British citizens and groups but to Britain as a whole from the esteem and understanding of this country that Erasmus students from elsewhere (30,000 of them in 2019 alone) have taken away with them, hopefully lasting for a lifetime.

Mr Johnston made the claim that Erasmus was only for the middle class and did not benefit those from low-income households. On the contrary, a few examples will give a flavour of the range and inclusiveness of Erasmus+. 

  • A student at Sheffield Hallam University who relies on a wheelchair because of his cerebral palsy spent a successful year studying in Warsaw with additional support from the programme’s provision for students with special needs. 
  • Individual students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds studied an international curriculum at the University of Lyon 2, and international relations and law in Sweden and the Netherlands. 
  • The University of Gloucestershire ran a project in conjunction with universities in Ireland, the Czech Republic, Greece and Spain and an NGO in Italy, mentoring boys and young men through their School of Sport and Exercise.  Their ultimate aim was “to provide sports students with practical skills in mentoring with boys and young men, to help reduce early school leaving by young males”. 
  • The €213 million allocated altogether for UK projects in 2020 was split between higher education (€98.9 m), vocational training (€47.6 m) and smaller amounts for adult education and the special Youth programme.  

Those examples are worth quoting because early press coverage of the new Turing programme has suggested that it will be broader and more inclusive than Erasmus+. Some (including Mr Johnston) incorrectly suggest that Erasmus is limited to EU countries, whereas some thirty or more non-EU countries are involved in partnerships set up under the auspices of Erasmus.   If Turing turns out to be at least as broad and inclusive, that will be a good start.

Universities UK has welcomed the new Turing scheme:

“While we are obviously disappointed that the UK will no longer be part of the Erasmus scheme, it is significant that the government has committed to a generously-funded scheme despite current economic pressures.

 “A priority will be working with international counterparts on the funding of inbound students, who won’t be covered by the scheme. Inbound exchange students contributed £440 million to the UK economy in 2018 and there are real concerns about whether the UK will see a decrease outside of the Erasmus scheme.

 “Take up of mobility opportunities by UK students is low by international standards, so we have a lot of work to do to ensure that students and universities make the most of the new scheme. Evidence shows that students who have international experience tend to do better academically and in employment, and the benefits are greatest for those who are least advantaged.”

So here is a new opportunity for education and training in the newly separated UK.  The name of the great humanist Erasmus was taken as an inspiration by Britain and our European partners in 1987.  That of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose code-breaking helped to win the second world war and so paved the way for Britain’s fundamental contribution to peace in post-war Europe will, we may hope, inspire great collaborations in the future.

*Dr Alice Prochaska was Principal of Somerville College Oxford, 2010-17 and now chairs the Institute of Historical Research Trust and is deputy chair of the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission

3 thoughts on “Erasmus – Why Change A Winning Formula?

    1. A decision by this government is no more than a passing phase. Their first U-turn of the New Year took 8 hours to arrive – there is no reason to believe that the Turing plans will have a long shelf-life.


  1. Thank you Alice on behalf of the many students of European Schools throughout the EU who have benefitted hugely from the Erasmus scheme. I know from my own students in Belgium, of all European backgrounds including the UK, how much the freedom to experience education in another country has meant to them. It is my profound regret that the European Schools no longer have entitled UK students or staff. The Erasmus scheme will go on providing this enormous opportunity to all students of the 27 and good luck to them. Patricia White ex Brussels secondary school teacher.


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