Erasmus after Brexit: what comes next for British young people?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The shock announcement at the end of 2020 that the UK will be leaving the Erasmus+ Programme sparked disbelief and disappointment on both sides of the Channel. 

After a chaotic year with disruption to education, jobs and wellbeing in the fallout of the pandemic, young people are already facing a great deal of instability. 

For young people in the UK, the lack of information on how exactly the government is planning to replace the opportunities that Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps have been providing to young people, and those working with them, is adding yet another layer of uncertainty for the future. 

Despite past assurances of the UK’s commitment to remaining in Erasmus+, the fact is that young people in the UK now stand to miss out. The extent of what will be lost, has been vastly underestimated.

As one of the most visible and well-known EU programmes, Erasmus+ funds a wide and diverse scope of opportunities, covering mobility, international cooperation, knowledge exchange, education and training. Together with the European Solidarity Corps, young people, students and professionals alike can benefit from fruitful exchanges and volunteer activities that strengthen personal and educational development as well as the sense of European identity.

Despite the UK’s newly established Turning Scheme being presented as an alternative, questions about its accessibility and viability remain unanswered.  

“I am a little concerned about the Turing scheme”, said Michal, a member of the UK Youth Parliament. “I don’t think that the UK government can provide for a scheme to work as well as the Erasmus programme and I’m also a little concerned about the proposal to base funding on the income of a person’s family. The details are not clear and the proposal doesn’t seem realistic given the timeframe.’ 

Major funding gaps in the Turing Scheme are also worrying for youth organisations and the services they provide. Currently, the alternative offered by the UK Government does not stand to cover the less talked about, but equally important range of opportunities, projects and experiences currently included in Erasmus+. It is a shortfall that is already being felt strongly by the British Youth Council. As stated by its Chief Executive, Jo Hobbs:

“The loss of Erasmus+ is devastating for young people across the UK. A key element that is mostly overlooked in the discussions of the new Turing scheme is the support that Erasmus+ gave for the Youth Dialogue. Erasmus+ underpinned a significant amount of the British Youth Council’s youth-led advocacy work and capacity building, as we do not receive core support from the government as the National Youth Council. Sadly we will have to scale back our work, meaning our ability to reach and represent a diverse network of young people across the UK will be reduced.”

While the true extent of youth organisations’ value in society is often overlooked, funding from Erasmus+ can be a lifeline for youth work and youth participation. Far beyond simply offering university exchanges, this crucial funding also enables organisations such as national youth councils to outreach to young people from all backgrounds, and support those working with them.  From volunteering and youth exchanges, to capacity-building opportunities and EU-wide youth participation structures such as the Youth Dialogue, these activities enable young people to engage not only in their local communities, but to connect on a national and international scale. 

The extent of this loss for British young people is harmful, but also unnecessary. Non-EU Member states can still participate in the Erasmus+ programme through different agreements, such as those with Iceland, Norway, or Turkey, for example. This option is of course open to the UK as well – but currently to a very limited degree as the UK government, despite its earlier promises, decided not to be an associated third country in the programme. The interest by some parts of the UK to continue their affiliation with the programme on a regional basis has also been unsuccessful. 

Still, the need to resolve the funding gaps and to provide young people with the opportunities that they deserve has resulted in additional steps being taken. In Wales, for example, the international exchange initiative has already been launched to try to mitigate the parts of Erasmus+ that Turing does not consider.

The creation of such programmes is a reflection and acknowledgement of what a future without Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps means. Failing to maintain these opportunities for young people and youth organisations will undoubtedly have negative consequences for the learning and development of young people in the country. It may also prove to have a huge effect on the future connections and solidarity between young people in the United Kingdom and the European Union. 

The Youth Forum, including the British Youth Council, has long campaigned for a more ambitious Erasmus+ programme that improves access, quality and inclusivity for young people everywhere. Young people deserve this investment in their present and future and there is no justification for the loss of opportunities that British young people now face. 

With uncertain times ahead, we need to look beyond nationality or borders to truly ensure equal rights and opportunities for all young people.

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