I had the pleasure of being involved with the recent Wonkhe SUs Baltics and Finland study trip – undertaken by around 35 elected students and students’ union staff from the UK.
It was an experience shaped in many ways by the warmth, generosity, intelligence and open mindedness of the people we met across Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. The irony – as we explored Europe with the help of mobile maps powered by EU roaming data – was that during the trip, the UK parliament hosted a vote proposing that the British government be required to negotiate to continue full membership of the Erasmus+ program. Although the Government’s official position is that Erasmus+ is still on the table, the fall of that motion was a message heard loud and clear on our trip.
Above and beyond our wincing when anyone we met mentioned Brexit or giggled slightly at the mention of “Boris”, I was grabbed by the sense that the people we met across Eastern Europe and the Nordic nations had found a way to celebrate national identity without this being at the expense of European alliance. Pride was strong, passionate and loyal. Traditions and history were rich in local narrative. Flags were waved. Events were held to promote and celebrate citizenship.
Citizens of somewhere
Yet all of this was exercised in a way which was compatible with a strong sense of European identity, and a spirit of European partnership which I can’t help but feel the UK has found it difficult to achieve. Our international student partners may have been globally aware, but they were certainly also “citzens of somewhere”. It’s a split that we should seek to bridge if we aren’t to miss out on some of the benefits of European partnership that exist.
Our group was very aware that collaboration and partnerships were celebrated wherever we went without being determined by who was in charge, where the power sat, or the draw down on collaboration. The simple fact that 2 bodies, organisations or nations shared something was celebrated in itself on web sites, on banners, in speeches and in practice.
In Finland we heard about “Dare to Learn” – a charity created by the Finnish National Union of Students (SYL), described as students’ “gift to the world” that focuses on innovation in, and lifelong, learning. It was born from them asking the question “what is this world still lacking?” and reaching the conclusion that “the world was craving for an international meeting place where people can share, question and create the future of learning”.
Almost every SU we met had an international student and partnership officer. These roles were both supporting and promoting the welcome, induction and community building of international students – but crucially also international partnership and exchange work. All were deeply embedded into Erasmus+. At Vytautas Magnus University Students’ Union in the Lithuanian City of Kaunas, their welcome festival celebrated different cultures and traditions in a lively pre-arrival program. In Estonia, students had been campaigning to keep courses open to overseas students. In Latvia students had been campaigning for financial support to international students.
Speaka de English?
Everywhere we went, we met people who spoke amazing English, frequently alongside a wide range of other languages. It was common to see a wide range of flags on display in buildings or on literature. We met a number of people who had studied in many different countries, something they seemed proud of and talked about how it influenced their learning, lifestyle and ability to represent.
One elected officer we spoke with at Aalto University told us about how they had studied in three different continents and they shared with us their reflections of how learning and teaching, funding and student life compared at each of their institutions. This was all coupled with the practice of collaboration in and between both regional and national organisations.
Tartu University talked about their partnership with Upsalla University in Sweden and they talked vividly about examples of cross-border collaboration and collectivism as enriching and value adding, even if and where they acknowledged they were sometimes difficult.
The final “salt in the wound” moment was when we spotted a campaign in Finland where the Finnish Social Democrat party was campaigning using the slogan “We dont Brexit, We fix it”. Even more amusingly, the formulation is the same as that used by the Finnish eurosceptics during the European debt crisis – when they were targeting a Finnish exit from the euro and lobbying for a “Fixit”.
It is fair to acknowledge that there were examples of nations (or more accurately factions within nations) who were still distinctly cautious of student migration. In Estonia we were told about how the government is trying to reduce migration into Estonian Universities, in part due to their attempt to preserve the limited student spaces available for Estonians in a country that currently only has space for circa 46,000 students across the nation. But those instances were in the minority and overall we saw a strong celebration of the European membership as adding value and stimulating economies be those economic or knowledge economies.
The overwhelming sense is that people benefit from sharing learning, experiencing different cultures, collectivist working, being mobile to travel, learn, work and study freely. These values are ones which many UK students and institutions feel they are losing right now, and outwith the conclusion to a wider Brexit debate which many have found exhausting and complex, are things that should be considered by the UK.
Put simply, “getting Brexit done” should not be at the expense of the UK’s place in a global knowledge economy or the value we can get from collaborating with European partners not just on on research and student recruitment, but also cultural exchange and student experience collaboration.
Perhaps, to protect the international standing and practice of UK HEI in a post Brexit world, the DfE, the Foreign Office or BEIS will be sponsoring our next European excursion – preparing new regulation for universities to provide a free second language for all students, or seed funding institutional partnerships that cross borders and promote the UK HEI system as both British and European.