“Today it is more critical than ever that the United Kingdom continues to build its reputation as a connected, attractive and trusted partner, a force for good in the world.” These words were spoken by Christopher Rodrigues, chair of the British Council, this year.
With Brexit still unresolved, it is important to remember that – whatever the outcome for the political and economic ties – our place in Europe is about people: sharing, understanding and exchange. That’s why we are so concerned about one relatively minor potential casualty of the Brexit mess: the future of the Erasmus+ programme for UK colleges and students. Put very simply, the programme offers colleges students and teachers opportunities to study in other EU countries and colleges opportunities to host students and teachers from overseas.
Opinion: Ministers must not offload Brexit on to schools
Read: Heads criticise DfE over Brexit school food supplies
Opinion: Brexit ‘not beneficial to students in any way’
Introducing languages, cultures – and people
That simple exchange of students and teachers affords all sorts of benefits which we would be short-sighted to let go. For college students, Erasmus+ offers short-term exchanges which complement the curriculum and introduce different cultures, languages and people. Often the students involved come from the most disadvantaged communities and would seldom have the resources available to replicate the exchanges.
It’s all too easy to underplay the impact of making friends with someone from a different country, learning about their lives, communicating across language barriers, visiting their college and homes and introducing visitors to your own community. Particularly for young people who may not get other chances to travel much, within the UK let alone beyond.
What we know is that young people talk about the impact interactions fondly and with passion. Years later it is easy to find people who look back on their Erasmus+ experience as a significant part of their growing up and development of their views of the world.
The Association of Colleges’ (AoC) survey of institutions involved with the programme shows that students will often benefit from work placements as part of their exchange, enhanced curriculum as well as the ‘softer’ impacts. Teachers visiting overseas colleges or hosting teachers will learn new skills, develop teaching ideas and develop international networks which last for years. There are also many knock-on effects across the broader college community, with parents, employers and others hosting visitors and learning about our European neighbours.
Interacting with fellow citizens
Participant testimonials are fundamental to any holistic evaluation of the merits of Erasmus+ because it is difficult to quantify the direct and immediate benefits. We’ve long understood this, not least with the investment made in the British Council which essentially exists to enhance our soft power as a nation. It’s clear too that the government appreciates the value of mobility. In March of this year, the government launched its new international education strategy, which stated that mobility and exchange must be a part of any broader internationalisation agenda.
All well and good you might think. So why is the AoC so worried? We’re concerned that college students and teachers might be overlooked because Erasmus+ is viewed as being all about universities and their students and teachers. Both universities and colleges need support on this. The easiest way to achieve that would be simply for the government to pursue every avenue to stay in the Erasmus+ programme, regardless of the outcome of Brexit. Simple, easy and not a lot of investment and we could remain members of an efficient and effective programme.
If that proves impossible, we would urge the government to launch a replacement programme that guarantees the same level of access and opportunity to colleges as Erasmus+ does now. That would be more difficult than staying in Erasmus+, and might involve mobility outside of the EU. On the one hand that is an attractive idea, but the realities of distance and costs might make it inaccessible for college students, so every effort is needed to maintain engagement with EU countries as well.
Whatever your views on the ideal future political and economic ties with the EU, surely we can all stand behind a desire to interact with fellow citizens, students, teachers and colleges?
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges