By failing to preserve Erasmus, the government is failing Britain’s young people

Eve Bennett
Over 200,000 students have studied or worked abroad under the Erasmus programme: Getty Images

If you ask any student about their least favourite words, you’re likely to get a bunch of similar answers – the very mention of “exam”, “assignment”, “deadline” or “9am start” is enough to send a collective groan around every lecture hall in the country.

For students of modern languages, however, there is one word that now inspires more fear than all of these combined: Brexit.

This word has cast a shadow of uncertainty over language students and academics for the best part of half a decade. And yet amidst all the speculation and talks about precautionary measures was a quiet confidence that Brexit would, in the end, be nothing more than an administrative headache.

After all, why would we ever DREAM of scrapping the Erasmus programme entirely? The UK government know better than to shoot themselves in the foot, right?

Wrong.

In voting against an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill tabled by the Liberal Democrats earlier this month, Conservative MPs revealed just how little they value the educational prospects of our young people.

The amendment would have required the government to seek continued participation in the Erasmus scheme, a programme that has allowed over 200,000 students to study and work in Europe since its inception in 1987.

Thanks to EU funding, Erasumus gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds the means to experience a new culture, learn a different language and develop key life skills, opportunities previously reserved for those lucky ones funded by the bank of mum and dad.

With more than 53% of students who choose to study abroad making use of Erasmus, it’s no wonder that the result in the commons caused a significant outcry. Sadly though, I cannot help but feel that no amount of angry tweets or petition signatures will be enough to change the government’s tune.

After watching my school suffer from devastating funding cuts, my tuition fees soar to dizzying heights and the Help to Buy ISA scrapped, the government’s lukewarm attitude toward Erasmus was the final nail in the coffin for any hope that they might ever put young people first.

Of course, Boris Johnson has attempted to stifle the nationwide backlash by assuring that “there is no threat to the Erasmus scheme”. But given the track record of the Conservatives, it appears unlikely that his words will be followed up with actions. Indeed, the language used by his ministers seems to betray just how low the programme actually ranks on the government’s list of priorities.

Government minister Chris Skidmore dismissed the Lib Dems’ amendment as “game-playing by opposition parties”, whilst the education secretary Gavin Williamson said the future of the scheme is nothing more than “a question for future negotiations with the European Union”.

When a spokesperson for Department for Education announced that the government would be open to staying in Erasmus “if it is in our interests to do so”, it was quite clear to me that the opinions of the very students who benefit from the scheme would not figure in their equation.

And so the quiet confidence once shared by staff and students alike has slowly given way to feverish concern. There is no doubt that loss of the Erasmus scheme would be a huge blow to the personal development and employability prospects of UK students, not to mention that the most disadvantaged in our society will ultimately have to shoulder the bulk of the burden.

What many perceive to be little more than a glorified holiday is actually an opportunity that has shaped the lives of countless individuals for the better. But as the Brexit deadline looms, we can do little but watch as the needs of the country’s future children and grandchildren fall by the wayside.

At a time where our country is slipping back further and further into its island mentality, openness to cultural exchange should be more important than ever – and yet we seem to be on the cusp of closing that door.