Scotland should not give up hope of rejoining the Erasmus student-exchange programme, according to the country's constitution secretary.
Michael Russell, who is also a former education secretary, said that leaving Erasmus after Brexit was “utterly unnecessary” and that the devolved nations “were not told the truth” by the UK government, believing it was trying to remain in the scheme “right up until virtually the end”.
But speaking to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee, Mr Russell said Scotland should continue attempts to rejoin the scheme following the “shocking” decision to leave it.
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He told MSPs that he and Welsh government Brexit minister, Jeremy Miles, had urged the UK government to remain in the European exchange programme, or to push for the devolved countries to be allowed to continue to be part of it.
However, the UK government concluded that Erasmus was too expensive and withdrew from it, announcing an alternative called the Turing scheme, named after mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing.
A group of approximately 150 MEPs wrote to the European Commission asking it to consider allowing Scotland and Wales to continue taking part in Erasmus.
The bid was rebuffed by commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday, when she said the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd could not diverge from the decision “made in London”.
During Wednesday’s evidence session about Brexit’s impact on Scotland’s constitutional affairs, Mr Russell said the decision was “factually correct” but added: “Let’s not give up.
“There may be all sorts of possibilities we can look at but it is a loss, it’s a substantial loss.
Brexit: Leaving Erasmus 'was shameful'
“I would want to continue to argue. We’ve got lots of friends in the European Parliament who are very, very keen that we continue to have some association.
“We can see Ireland is taking Northern Irish young people under its wing and they will be associated with the scheme through Irish institutions and organisations.
“We need to continue to think about what we can do. But two things are shameful about it: it’s utterly unnecessary, we could have remained part of it, which is ridiculous; but also the manner by which it was done.”
Mr Russell added: “The UK government knew perfectly well the view of the devolved governments on this matter and we were not told the truth about it.
“We were never shown the value-for-money assessment was undertaken, and right up until virtually the end, we believed that the UK government was intending to stay in or at least trying to stay in.
“It was shocking.”
The Turing scheme will provide funding for an estimated 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting this September.
But Mr Russell said: “The Turing scheme does not deal with youth work and with youth issues, which is a huge part of the Erasmus Plus scheme and very, very important to Scotland.
“There’s a process now of telling people essentially what it’s going to be about, but there’s been no meaningful consultation about what it should be – even right down to naming it.
“This thing just appeared. Clearly, work was being done on it and we were not being told about that work. It doesn’t give you huge confidence in it.”
In response, a UK government spokesperson said: “We worked very closely with devolved administrations for over a year to prepare an alternative programme, in the event the UK chose not to participate in Erasmus, including regular ministerial meetings with Scottish counterparts.
“The UK government decided to not participate in the next Erasmus programme as it was not in the interest of UK taxpayers and our net contribution would have been around £2 billion over the programme.
“The new Turing Scheme, backed by £110 million, will provide thousands of students from across the UK the opportunity to study and work abroad.”