Boris Johnson has said repeatedly that he wants to “bring the country back together”. Last week’s vote on New Clause 10 was an opportunity to take a step in that direction. Instead, depressingly, he directed his government to vote against the amendment to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, tabled by Layla Moran of the Liberal Democrats, which would have required the UK government to seek to negotiate continuing full membership of Erasmus+.
After the vote, Chris Skidmore, minister of state for universities, commented that the government is still open to participation, but that he wants Erasmus+ to be part of negotiations.
Holding Erasmus+ to ransom makes no sense to me. It shows no sympathy for the young people on whom we depend for a successful future and little understanding of the benefits of certainty and planning in education.
Education is everything. Channelled properly it can lead to a thriving workforce, which in turn helps create the kind of jobs that strengthen business and our public services. When education is weakened, we struggle to compete in a world where other countries understand its importance. All of us in the UK should champion education and be fiercely protective of any scheme that provides genuinely world-class training.
Erasmus+ is one of the best such schemes that we currently have at our disposal. Set up in 1987 as a youth, education and training programme, Erasmus+ became a touchstone for both sides during the fight against Brexit. Thousands of British students have had their lives enriched by Erasmus+ and as Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education in Europe and a member of the Culture and Education (CULT) Committee, I have seen first-hand the marvellous impact that Erasmus+ can have on individuals who take part. By providing funding for young people to live and study abroad, we give them access to skills and experience, and the confidence to flourish in a globalised marketplace.
A world-class scheme
Leaving the EU need not inevitably mean our departure from EU projects such as Erasmus+. When a third country buys into Erasmus+, which they do, all parties benefit. We have access to a world-class scheme for a reasonable investment; why would a government choose to put this in jeopardy?
To put into context the scale of opportunity that’s on offer, right now, young people in the UK have the resources to live, love and learn across 27 different countries. This benefits their personal development and is also fantastic for the future of the UK.
In 2017 alone, Erasmus+ supported 47,555 British participants across 742 projects. From 2014 to 2018, nearly 5,000 grants were awarded to Erasmus+ projects in the UK, supporting a total of 167,000 young individuals. In November last year in the European Parliament, we voted to increase the Erasmus+ budget for 2020 by €50 million, taking it up to €2.8 billion. We also approved the tripling of the long-term budget, for 2021-2027.
One reason for this huge increase in budget is the fact that ErasmusPRO extends the scheme significantly to increase opportunities for apprentices and entrepreneurs. Apprentices can now take up placements abroad for six to 12 months and receive language support while they are doing it.
Since 2009, entrepreneurs have also benefited from a specially tailored exchange programme and, in a nod to lifelong learning, there is not even an age limit for this part of the scheme. You simply need to be ‘a “would-be” entrepreneur, firmly planning to start a business or someone who has started your own business within the last three years’.
Consider for a moment the implications of this. Consider the potential impact of tripling the funds and extending opportunities for the UK. Consider the kind of impact this could have on young careers and the kind of skills that could be brought back to enrich our society.
A game of chance
On Thursday, after the vote, the government, bizarrely, announced its commitment to maintaining our future membership of Erasmus+, “if it is in our interests do so”. Exactly whose interests this refers to is not specified. It is hard to imagine it includes the interests of young people waiting to sign up to the scheme or those hoping for placements who now have no idea whether funding will be cut off or not.
Chris Skidmore accused those of us who condemned the decision not to support New Clause 10 of playing games, but this is nonsensical. He and Boris Johnson are the ones enjoying a game of chance at the expense of our young people's futures.
So, what can we do to help? It is imperative that we all now turn our attention to holding the government to account as it begins the next phase of negotiations with the EU. Membership of Erasmus+ is in the best interest of the UK. Skidmore and Johnson must live up to their rhetoric and deliver future membership.
This is now about much more than party politics. It is about ensuring that the young people of this country have the best possible chance in life. We owe that not just to them, but to ourselves, and to our country.
Judith Bunting is an MEP and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education in Europe