Erasmus and Brexit: In search of solutions

17 May 2021

The Erasmus program between the United Kingdom and the European Union will come to an end the year after next. Universities are busy talking about ways in which they might be able to maintain their cooperation.

A British national flag flies in front of the Big Ben clock tower in London

© picture alliance / dpa / Michael Kappeler

Being an Erasmus student is a real challenge: you have to navigate your way through a new study environment and a new lifestyle and you need to organize your studies and your everyday life in a foreign language. But above all else, Erasmus is about exchange, experience and making connections. It's shaped by a certain ease of interaction, enabling people to study together and party together — under normal circumstances, anyway. Covid-19 has meant that much of what was still quite natural back in 2019 is only possible in greatly reduced and virtual forms or is not possible at all right now. “I find it difficult to make contact with people through my lectures or seminars because there’s little opportunity to talk to other students and get to know them. Still, I have met people from several different EU countries through online meetings.” Travis Simpson from the University of Leeds is studying German and mathematics at LMU. He chose Munich because of LMU’s good reputation; he also likes the city life and how close it is to the mountains.

Elena Habelt, too, is studying from home. “Here in London,” she says, “everything’s online. Only the libraries are open and you can use the study spaces.” Habelt is studying educational psychology, English and philosophy at King’s College and she’s enjoying her studies despite the restrictions. Because even though Simpson and Habelt aren’t experiencing a “normal” Erasmus program and have had to cut back on student life, they are still able to study abroad via the Erasmus scheme.

By the end of the winter semester 2022/23, the Erasmus project will have come to an end. After that, it won’t be possible to prolong any Erasmus exchange agreements.

From then on, whether or not a student exchange can take place will depend on bilateral agreements between universities. “Even in spite of Brexit, we’ve always advised people to apply for a student exchange in the UK, especially in the hope that there will continue to be cooperation agreements with British universities after their withdrawal from Erasmus,” stresses Claudia Wernthaler, who advises outgoing students in LMU’s International Office.

Professor Francesca Biagini, Vice President for International Affairs and Diversity at LMU, also sees a good chance of this happening: “British universities are very interested in student exchanges continuing,” she says. It’s quite conceivable, for example, that existing research collaborations at LMU might be expanded to include exchange modules. Talks are underway, says Biagini.

And Jean Schleiss, Deputy Head of the International Office, points to the university’s LMUexchange program, which currently promotes studying at LMU partner universities primarily beyond Europe’s boundaries. There’s every chance that this exchange program could be expanded to include collaborations with UK universities.

“However, British universities are still waiting to see what happens with the UK’s Turing Scheme. Funding for the new program has been secured for one year at this point. Where it goes from there is yet to be determined.” The program, set up by the UK government to replace Erasmus and named after the famous mathematician Alan Turing, is designed to enable young students from the United Kingdom to study abroad. The British government won’t be funding German students who want to study abroad in the UK. So it’s exclusively a program to support students from Britain. Travis Simpson from Leeds is pretty critical of the program: “The replacement program is supposed to be not as ‘expensive’ as Erasmus, because it was the financial cost that was the reason for us dropping out.” What this means, he says, is that many of the grants won’t be as much as people actually need.

The cost issue of studying abroad

And what about German students who want to go to the UK —what do they do? The country is, after all, one of the most popular study destinations, alongside Spain. Intensive efforts are underway to enable interested students to study in the British Isles. Students of English, for example, actually have to be able to prove that they’ve spent time on an exchange.

The sticking point will be the cost. Under the Erasmus agreement, participants are exempt from paying tuition fees. This is a major advantage in the case of the United Kingdom, as tuition fees are usually very high there. In addition to the fee exemption, the scheme pays a grant of 450 euros per month. That’s not much, but it will definitely be dropped in the future —at a time when the cost of living in the UK is rising. “I wouldn’t be able to afford to study in London without the grant,” says Elena Habelt, who shares a small apartment in the British capital with her boyfriend, which they rent for 2,000 euros a month.

“Even if you get a place to study on an exchange program, you don’t have to pay tuition fees but you still have your living costs,” confirms Jean Schleiss. “In addition, you need a visa if you want to stay for a full academic year. That costs about 400 euros.” Added to that, says Jean Schleiss, herself a Scotswoman, you have to pay the NHS surcharge for health insurance, as well as the cost of any language courses. “You have to budget another 1,000 euros or so for everything.” For students who are not so well off, it can be quite difficult.

But here, too, people are trying to find solutions — and fast. LMU has its own scholarship called PROSALMU, funded by the German Academic Exchange Program (DAAD) and the Bavarian State Government. LMU students can apply for it if they organize their stay abroad themselves or go abroad through LMUexchange. “But whether or not you get a scholarship depends on how many applicants there are,” as Claudia Wernthaler points out. So it may be that you get a place to study, in other words you don’t have to pay the tuition fees, but you do have to cover the remaining costs yourself.

Sidney Garratt-Stanley, a history student at the University of Leeds, is certain that far fewer German or European students will find their way to British universities in the future. “The Erasmus program provides really good help to study abroad —I’m benefiting a lot from it. For many, it will simply be too expensive now,” he says. “Brexit will make so many things harder—just looking at the opportunity to travel around Europe, for example.”

Francesca Biagini, too, suspects that other countries will become increasingly attractive to Erasmus students in the future—perhaps in Scandinavia, where LMU has good connections with numerous institutions. Nevertheless, it’s clear to her that if British universities have their way, European student exchanges won’t be a thing of the past. “We just need to come up with good solutions, and I’m sure we’ll manage to do that.”

The absence of students from other EU countries could have a significant impact on the higher education landscape in the United Kingdom. That’s because universities in the UK place special emphasis on being international in nature and they are positioned accordingly. Almost one third of the people who work at British universities are from abroad, many of them from Europe. In addition, British universities benefit from extensive EU funding for research and teaching through programs such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus.

Consequently, the academic community does not have a very positive opinion of Brexit. “King’s College is a very free-thinking university, and I haven’t met anyone there who is a supporter of Brexit,” says Elena Habelt. Travis Simpson is hopeful “that British universities can maintain their strong reputation. Brexit was not their choice and it would be unfair if they were to lose their excellent global reputation because of it. I think that British and European universities will find a solution to be able to work with each other efficiently. But the solution will never be better than the agreement they had before.” Isa Bojaj believes the pandemic has helped fuel nationalism — as evidenced in the vaccination situation — not just in the United Kingdom, but across Europe. He is particularly interested in the conflict around this issue, as he’s studying political science and international relations at the University of Exeter. “I think so-called vaccinationalism was partly behind each country thinking only as far as its own borders.” But he suspects that Brexit might be one of the reasons for the success of the vaccination rollout in his home country. Bojaj is very surprised at how smoothly the split from the EU has gone despite the circumstances. Still, with his family being of Albanian heritage and having relatives in Stuttgart and Frankfurt as well, he is also a little bit disappointed. “I value the cultural and economic platform that the EU offers.” He says he is all the happier that he was “one of the last” to have the opportunity to participate in the Erasmus program.

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