Whether it is the critical role of expertise in public life, the power of community spirit or simply a reliable wifi connection for binge-watching Netflix, the COVID-19 pandemic has made us all conscious of what aspects of modern life really matter to us.
To this growing list we must also now surely add: the value of international cooperation. In response to the emergence of this novel Coronavirus, the international community has collaborated, and shared research, experience and resources in a way that is truly unprecedented. Eight months on and several different vaccines are in the pipeline. Such speedy progress would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago.
This desperately needed collaboration demonstrates very clearly the value of internationalism, of linguistic expertise and of the infrastructure that makes working, studying and collaborating overseas possible. As we seek to rebuild our societies and economies, we must safeguard this infrastructure at all costs.
The need for Erasmus
The British Academy recently published a briefing document, which examines one key component of the UK’s infrastructure for working, studying and travelling overseas: the Erasmus Programme.
Established in 1987 as an exchange scheme for higher education students, the Erasmus programme has gradually evolved to support mobility in education, training, youth, and sport across Europe. It now provides opportunities to study, train, and work in 34 European Union and associated countries, which are full participants in the programme, and up to 156 countries elsewhere in the world. Now that the UK has left the EU, we cannot take our association to Erasmus for granted. Indeed, there are conditions that we will have to meet if we want to take part in the next Erasmus programme (2021-27).
The UK Government is committed to seeking association to the next programme. In January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said:
There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners.”
As Foreign Secretary of the British Academy, I very much hope that we can associate. The Erasmus Programme plays many critical roles in the UK, including in universities, the research and development sector, and our cultural life.
To take one example: Erasmus provides an invaluable pathway for language degrees and the promotion of languages – more than half (53 per cent) of UK students who study abroad do so through Erasmus. In this way, the programme helps enhance language skills, and ensures that UK-based students and academic staff across disciplines can work across different cultures and within a diverse workforce as well as establish vital international partnerships. And the benefits are reciprocal – the UK is the third most popular destination for incoming students with 31,396 students coming to study or complete a traineeship in 2018-19.
All of this is to be seen in a context of continuing decline in the number of UK students studying languages at secondary school and consequently at university – a trend that is harming us nationally and, of course, internationally. The economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance, in terms of lost trade and investment, has been estimated at 3.5 per cent of GDP. Languages are also essential for fostering effective international cooperation and commercial links, as well as for improving educational performance, cognitive function and skills, opportunity, and social cohesion.
If we want to preserve these benefits, the UK Government needs to associate to the next Erasmus Programme. As we approach the autumn, we are coming ever closer to an expected crunch point in the UK’s negotiations with the EU. The implications of the outcomes for those wider negotiations will be profound for UK researchers and students. Erasmus, as well as Horizon Europe, are vital mainstays of UK higher education and research. My hope is that the wider negotiations can be concluded successfully to ensure that students and universities here in the UK can continue to take advantage of the opportunities Erasmus provides.
The strength of collaboration
Given the programme’s strong brand, trusted reputation, common rulebook, and established network of potential partners, it would not be possible to replicate Erasmus on a solely UK basis. The difficulty Switzerland has had in running an Erasmus alternative, and its plans now to associate again to Erasmus, should serve as a warning for the UK.
The students who participate in Erasmus currently – both those from other countries here in the UK and the UK students who study elsewhere – should be fundamental to the government’s vision of this country in the years ahead. Continuing to associate to Erasmus will ensure that UK-based students have the same opportunities to study overseas and learn new languages, which the UK so critically requires, and that students here will be able to meet and study with a diverse range of peers from around the world.
As the pandemic has shown, engaging with our increasingly globalised world, and cultivating and harnessing insights and perspectives from around the globe, is non-negotiable if we are to rise to the challenges that we face as a nation. Associating to the next Erasmus programme is one simple way of ensuring we do so.