Which is more important – fish or the next generation? How the Erasmus programme has supported our young people

Photo by Priscilla du Preez

In January 2017 many of us celebrated the birthday of one of the European Union’s greatest success stories the Erasmus education and training exchange and mobility programme. For more than three decades the programme has brought generations of young people in Europe closer together in a practical way, removing barriers to learning and personal development, and enabling the forging of lifelong friendships. Since the creation of the Erasmus mobility programme in 1987, more than 3 million young people have studied abroad and over 300,000 research exchanges, teaching and training projects have been supported.

In 2014 alone, the programme provided the UK with €79.08 million in grants and allowed 36,734 British people to study, train or volunteer abroad. These grants helped young people enhance their skills, increase their employability and develop intercultural awareness. The programme also encourages young people to become active citizens and participate in democratic life. Charmingly, there have been Erasmus weddings and babies as young people from different European countries found their soul mates whilst studying abroad, demonstrating the power of intercultural dialogue to bring young people together from different nationalities despite language differences.

2014, the year I took up my seat in the European Parliament, saw the start of the new Erasmus+ programme which subsumed seven previous education, training and youth strands under one umbrella. The new iteration of Erasmus+ provided stronger support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often have fewer opportunities, including migrants and refugees, and young people with disabilities, such as those involved with Headway Arts in Blyth. Erasmus+ also funds cooperation projects, with over a thousand UK organisations and partnerships benefitting from such grants, amounting to more than €30 million. This includes opportunities for educators and trainers, including those in the lifelong learning sector, to learn from each other.

But aside from the figures, Erasmus has proved that by working together schools, universities, youth organisations, public authorities and business enterprises can learn from each other and strengthen education and youth systems across Europe using best practice rather than re-inventing the wheel. Cooperation projects foster modernisation and collaboration, which in turn stimulates innovation, creativity and improves job prospects as well as finding solutions to some of our most pressing contemporary problems.

Those who have studied abroad are less likely to experience long-term unemployment, and participation in the Erasmus study exchange programme is proven to increase job prospects for young people. Erasmus is therefore more important than ever in times of economic hardship and high youth unemployment. This is recognised by the EU who have increased the budget for Erasmus+ in the next Multi-annual Financial Framework, supported by the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee. Indeed, I helped to shape a more ambitious programme and fight for increased resources.

Erasmus has also played a significant role in improving the quality of higher education across Europe by opening up universities and colleges to international cooperation. The programme is now operational in 33 countries but from January 1st 2021 the UK will withdraw from the scheme. The announcement of this U-turn by the Conservative government came last week after negotiations between the EU and UK failed to reach an agreement on this issue and presumably moved on to talk about fish again. It is a mystery to me why fish are more important than the next generation. I am equally perturbed that an agreement about a deal involving trade in goods will give more rights to a tin of dead meat than a person. This is the skewed result of a xenophobic drive to take back control of our borders yet still wanting to have our cake and eat it. A peculiar kind of English exceptionalism, that harks back to the days of the British Empire, is largely to blame for where we are now, with the Brexiteers believing we can rule the waves and dictate terms without having to abide by international norms, even threatening to break international law. It is a sad and sorry state of affairs that threatens to hurt the poorest and most marginalised the hardest.

I had long predicted that Erasmus+ would fall victim to hard right nationalist ideology whereby programmes that empower British youth by teaching them European values of freedom, democracy, rule of law, mutual respect, and gender equality, counts as ‘propaganda’. I learnt early on in my parliamentary mandate that ultra-nationalism abhors intercultural dialogue, especially when conducted via transformational arts and sports projects.

In the very first meeting of the Culture and Education Committee in the 8th European Parliamentary Legislature I found myself defending a summer school that young people from the north east had attended at the Sonnenberg Peace Foundation in the Harz Mountains near Hannover, funded by the EU Youth in Action programme  (which has now become the plus of Erasmus+). These young people were from the former coal mining communities of Durham. Some of them had never been to Newcastle, York or London let alone a foreign country where English was not the lingua franca. At the end of two weeks in the company of their peers from different European countries (including Russia and Ukraine) the lads and lasses from Durham had learnt not only about their new found friends but also about themselves. They returned to the UK with a self-confidence that has stood them in good stead ever since.

I watched these young people grow up through their engagement with Jack Drum Arts, the organisation I used to run which had entered into a partnership with Sonnenberg. I still know these young people. They were the kids in trouble, the excluded, the NEETs, young carers and others grappling with enormous life challenges. Subsequent to their engagement in our EU funded youth exchanges many went on to study in Further and Higher Education, often becoming the first generation in their families to go to college or university, some set up successful businesses, many became volunteers, and others are now in leadership roles within Jack Drum or similar organisations. All could have taken a very different and less productive path, becoming a costly burden on society. With our education system under strain despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers, and with our youth service decimated as a result of a decade of austerity, it is even more important that young people are given opportunities to thrive both in and out of school. Erasmus+ continues to be one of the most effective education and youth programmes in the world, with the newest iteration due to begin in 2021 reaching out to include even more countries across the globe. The Tory rhetoric about ‘Global Britain’ is therefore a hollow mantra in the context of withdrawal from Erasmus+.

Leaving the Erasmus+ programme will also have a major impact on the higher education sector, with important loss of income due to a fall in the numbers of EU nationals studying in the UK. Losing access to EU funding, such as Horizon programme grants (which accounts for a quarter of all public investment in UK research) could further tarnish the attractiveness of the UK as a place to study for international students, including those from non-EU countries.

Most importantly, by ending freedom of movement, a hard Brexit deprives future generations of young Britons of the chance to broaden their minds, learn a foreign language, enjoy new culture and gain a valuable European experience, not only key for their employability, but for their own personal and cultural development.

In the years since the 2016 UK referendum on continued membership of the EU the government seemed, at first, to recognise the importance of the Erasmus programme, in terms of economic, social and cultural value. It is unforgivable therefore that our youth and our HE sector are being thrown under a bus at the last hurdle. The ominous signs were in the Withdrawal Bill voted on in January this year which excluded almost all EU co-operation projects. Yet many of us hoped that Erasmus+ would survive the anti-European madness which has gripped the Tory Party.

By giving one fewer opportunity to meet, exchange and interact with their neighbours, we risk depriving young British people of an extraordinary opportunity to acquire the skills they need to become open and active citizens in a diverse and tolerant society.

If you share my concerns for the wellbeing of the next generation who were denied a say in their future please make your voices heard – add your name to this open letter about continued involvement in Erasmus initiated by Another Europe Is Possible.

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