Hopes And Fears: We Asked Erasmus Students About Their Rights As Brexit Draws Closer

By Ewan Somerville, 2 Feb 2018

It’s one of the most popular programmes offered by the EU, but after 30 years Britain’s ties with Erasmus+ are hanging in the balance.

Hundreds of thousands of students have been sent or hosted by UK universities on exchanges in 34 European countries, but as the Brexit negotiations continue the future UK relationship with the scheme is uncertain. So we thought we’d hear from some Erasmus students who have just studied in Britain.

What’s Erasmus+ All About?

Erasmus+ allows students to experience studying in another EU city. Image Credit: Pexels

Run by the European Commission, Erasmus+ is a programme connecting European university institutions and departments for exchanges and research. Since its launch in 1987, the scheme has grown to encompass all 28 EU member states and six non-EU members. Young people are able to harness the European links their university has, to spend between three and 12 months abroad at a partner institution – made all the more accessible by a monthly grant of around 300 euros. The European Commission sets budgets for the programme in seven-year blocks, with 14.7 billion euros allotted between 2014 and 2020.

Erasmus has proven immensely popular, with 725,000 participating EU students annually. Between 1987 and 2013, three million students were placed across Europe to study or work, and more than 200,000 from Britain alone. Naquita Lewis, head of Erasmus in Britain, said at a recent seminar that 30,000 students came to the UK to study in 2015, with 40,000 outgoing British students. Britain ranks as the third most attractive destination behind Spain and Germany. What’s more, between 2014 and 2017 alone, British educational organisations received 501 million euros for nearly 4,000 research and innovation projects.

Insecurity In the Face of Brexit?

Image Credit: Estonian Presidency / Flickr

The current seven-year Erasmus cycle terminates in 2020, one year after Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU in March 2019. This means that without a deal, British universities may not be able to participate in the scheme beyond December 2020. Prime Minister Theresa May said last December that Britain would remain in the scheme until “at least” 2020. Furthermore, last October Universities Minister Jo Johnson said the government is “encouraging participants to continue to apply for funding until we leave” as applications for study or work in the scheme processed before March 2019 will still be valid and funded for the following (2019/2020) academic year. But what about beyond 2020? With no official position stated yet and Brexit negotiations continuing, this is where the uncertainty lies. Beyond the scheme itself, students wishing to study in Britain still don’t know how negotiation will affect their rights to live and work here more generally, or how they’ll access things like healthcare.

I’m afraid some students may not decide to study abroad if the costs rise or face other difficulties.

Ania Machnio, Erasmus Student

Ania Machnio, 21, is a third-year European Studies student from Warsaw University. She has been on a five-month Erasmus exchange at The University of Sheffield since September. Speaking to RightsInfo, she “wasn’t very worried” about the security of her position whilst studying here, but said “it would be a great loss” if future students missed out: “I’m afraid that some students may not decide to study abroad if, for instance, the costs of studying raise, or if they would need a visa or face other difficulties. Unfortunately, the costs are high and scholarships are not always available so students like me may be more likely to choose a country that belongs to the Erasmus community and have the unified and consistent exchange programmes.”

Stefan Pretterhofer is a final year Material Science student who has just finished his exchange in Sheffield from Montanuniversität Leoben in Austria. He was also concerned for future Erasmus students: “I suppose that travelling back and forth between my home-country and the UK will be affected negatively by Brexit. Especially, the times for safety checks, passport control and border checks will increase. I also expect an increase in tuition fees, as at the moment I don’t have to pay anything here in England. I think that doing an exchange term like I do won’t be possible after the UK isn’t part of the EU anymore.”

These concerns were echoed by Janine Barten, a third-year student at Radboud University in Holland. Having just finished her exchange semester in Sheffield, she said: “I am thinking about doing my postgraduate degree in the UK and I am worried about this, because the future for Erasmus students in the UK is quite uncertain and I am not sure how things will work out or what the actual impact is going to be. Some friends in Sheffield who were studying here for their whole degree, or who wanted to come back for a graduate degree, told me that they weren’t sure how things are going to be in the future.”

A Welcoming Place to Study Today?

Ania is worried about future students. Image Credit: Supplied by Author

Recently published Home Office figures show that almost 84,000 hate crimes were recorded in the 2016-17 financial year, a 29% increase on the previous year. The record spike occurred in the aftermath of the EU referendum, and crimes were based on race, religion, and nationality among others. But have they affected the experience of Erasmus students?

Janine’s experience was positive overall: “I think the UK has definitely been welcoming to me as an Erasmus student, especially the University of Sheffield, which is a really internationally-oriented university. However, it was sometimes difficult for me to get in contact with British people outside the university, because some of them were a bit reserved. I am not sure whether this was because I am an international student or that the British culture in general is just a bit more reserved than in my home country.”

Ania highlighted that welcoming attitudes existed in the wider city as well as within the university community: “The British people were open and welcoming and that probably won’t change. Both within and outside the university I experienced hospitable attitudes, for instance, I had rented a room few times and the hosts were really kind. Of course, not everyone smiles at you, but it does not differ from what I see in Poland. Personally, I haven’t experienced any unpleasantness due to my origin and I hope that this will not happen.”

So, is Brexit Really Having That Much Impact So Far?

Image Credit: Chris Lawton / Unsplash

For Janine, the impact of the Brexit negotiations on Erasmus students has been exaggerated: “Actually it had less impact that I expected. Everybody told me that I was just ‘in time’ to escape the problems the Brexit might bring for Erasmus students, because Britain hasn’t formally left. I had no problems with my application or entering the country, however, I have definitely noticed that it is a very current and controversial topic for British people.”

But, interestingly, Ania felt this was her final opportunity and shares Janine’s concern about whether Britain will be an option for postgraduate study. “Actually, I can say it’s helped me decide. I felt like it was the last chance to go to such an exchange in the UK,” she said.

“I knew that maybe during my masters I won’t be able to do this so I decided to go. I think that during the exchange the impact wasn’t so strong as Brexit negotiations were in their initial phase and I knew that until the end of my stay in the UK nothing would change dramatically for me. But when I said that I was going to the UK for an Erasmus someone often mentioned that after Brexit there may not be such a chance at all. And yes, I still have this feeling because I don’t know much about future arrangements.”

Featured Image: Supplied by the Author

About The Author

Ewan Somerville

Ewan studies Politics and International Relations at The University of Sheffield.

Ewan studies Politics and International Relations at The University of Sheffield.