As the United Kingdom crawls ever closer to Brexit, with a current lack of clarity as to what this brave new post-EU membership world will look like, our thoughts must turn to the opportunities available to our students which are at immediate and pressing risk.
To have full access to the varied range of opportunities hosted though Erasmus+, participants must originate from a programme country, which the UK currently is through its EU membership. Only five non-EU countries are programme countries: Macedonia and Turkey, as non-EU countries, each have bespoke agreements to underpin their programme status; Lichtenstein, Norway, and Iceland are programme countries underpinned by being members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which requires these countries to be governed by the same freedom of movement rules as any other EU country, but, importantly, doesn’t allow them to participate in EU decision-making processes.
Understanding the difference between programme countries and partner countries is critically important for the UK college sector as, unless something substantially changes in the next year, it is likely that our students will have no avenue to participate in Erasmus+, a programme which enables international mobility for study, training, volunteering, teaching and work opportunities. It is through Erasmus+ opportunities that some of our students have had their first ever opportunity to travel out of the country.
Social and cultural experiences
When our sector prides itself on being not only the first chance but the second or third chance for individuals to build up their skills and self-esteem, the loss of access to such an incredible opportunity to visit, volunteer, play sport, study or practice skills abroad will reinforce inequality and remove these important social and cultural experiences for future generations.
It is fair to note that opportunities would still exist if the UK, like many other countries bordering the EU, participated in Erasmus+ as a partner country. However, being a partner country would preclude British institutions from developing projects and firmly place the emphasis on universities to the detriment of colleges.
Erasmus+ has evolved to offer so much more than just university level experiences. Through Scottish colleges alone, students have completed Erasmus+ exchanges involving sport, or volunteering, or work placement - opportunities which have been genuinely transformational in nature, but which are now at risk of being removed for the next generation of young learners. The Scottish youth charity Youthlink Scotland has brought together a campaign entitled #KeepErasmusPlus and is asking for Erasmus+ stories to be shared on social media, and for those who want to keep Erasmus+ opportunities available for generations to come to contact MPs and make sure your perspective is shared.
If the college sector is to continue to facilitate international opportunities through Erasmus+, it is critical that the UK not only maintains access to Erasmus+, but that it is a programme country after 2020. This could and should all be protected and preserved.
Vonnie Sandlan is a senior policy officer at Colleges Scotland