Britain must fight to remain part of Erasmus post-Brexit, warn Labour MEPs

Leaving the EU’s Erasmus programme after Brexit will affect the future prospects of young people in Britain, writes Julie Ward MEP.

This week we celebrate the birthday of one of the European Union’s greatest success stories, Erasmus. For 30 years it has brought generations of young people in Europe closer together in the most practical and efficient way. Since the creation of the Erasmus mobility programme in 1987, more than three million young people have studied abroad and more than 300,000 research exchanges, teaching and training have been supported.

In 2014 alone, the programme provided the UK with €79.08 million (£67.39m) in grants and allowed 36,734 British people to study, train or volunteer abroad. These grants helped and continue to help young people enhance their skills, employability and awareness of other cultures. They also encourage young people to participate in democratic life.

Compared to previous generations of programmes, the new Erasmus+ provides stronger support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often have fewer opportunities. Erasmus + also funds cooperation projects: 709 organisations and 128 partnerships have benefitted from such grants in the UK, amounting to €30.66 million (£26.13m).

But aside from the figures, Erasmus has proved that by working together schools, universities, youth organisations, public authorities and enterprises can learn from each other and strengthen education and youth systems across the EU. Cooperation projects foster modernisation and EU-wide collaboration, which in turn stimulates innovation and creativity and improves job prospects.

Indeed, those who have studied abroad are less likely to experience long-term unemployment, and participation in the Erasmus study exchange programme increases job prospects for young people. Erasmus is more important than ever in times of economic hardship and high youth unemployment. Erasmus has also played a tremendous role in improving the quality of higher education in Europe by opening up our universities and colleges to international cooperation.

In terms of the future, leaving the European Union will have a major impact on higher education, if there is a big loss of income due to an expected fall in the numbers of EU nationals studying in the UK. Losing access to EU funding, such as Horizon 2020 grants – which accounts for a quarter of all public investment in UK research – could further tarnish the attractiveness of the UK as a place to study for international students, including those from non-EU countries.

Most importantly, by ending freedom of movement as the government has indicated, a hard Brexit would deprive future generations of young Britons of the chance to broader their minds, learn a foreign language, enjoy new culture and gain valuable European experiences, not only key for their employability, but for their own personal and cultural development.

And, as ever under this Tory government, it is the most disadvantaged who will suffer the worst – just as we are about to leave the EU (and potentially exit Erasmus), the Erasmus+ programme is set to be extended to more disadvantaged young people, by expanding and improving mobility for vocational training and education, including specific support for disabled young people who would not otherwise have access to such opportunities as learning abroad.

Mobility has an undeniable positive effect in terms of the development of confidence, skills and competences and, ultimately, the employability of young people. These opportunities should not just be for those at university but be open to those who learn in a more practice-based environment. If we leave the Erasmus programme, all this will be lost.

And that is why Labour MEPs will fight for the UK to maintain its access to the programme, and call for this to be a priority in the negotiations on Article 50. Macedonia, Iceland, Norway, Turkey and Liechtenstein are all outside the EU and inside Erasmus – and so should Britain after Brexit.

Julie Ward MEP is Labour’s European Parliament spokesperson on culture and education.

This blog can also be found on Left Foot Forward.