Brexit and Coronavirus: an impossible dilemma for year abroad students


The Erasmus Programme is an EU-wide student exchange programme, designed to allow students to study and work in any other European country in a way that’ll be recognised by their university at home, and which entitles them to apply for a grant, which isn’t means tested, to cover the additional expenses of living abroad. The programme was established in 1987 and has allowed more than nine million young people to experience living in another European country. Not only does it provide the means for students to live abroad, it also allows them to connect through the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), which organises regular social events in 42 countries and in over 530 European university cities, including here in Durham.

The programme has fostered reciprocal relations among European countries for decades, creating opportunities that would otherwise be financially impossible for many students and promoting the learning of foreign languages, a subject that has famously struggled to attract students at British universities. According to a recent report from the British Council, one in four secondary school teachers said they felt that Brexit has discouraged their pupils from furthering their studies in a foreign language, with some saying that parents were actively discouraging it. The prospect of telling prospective Modern Languages students that they must completely self-fund their compulsory year abroad would make Modern Foreign Languages a classist degree.

Government restrictions…put students at a significant disadvantage compared to previous cohorts

In January 2020, MPs voted in such a way that continuing Erasmus participation is not a compulsory aspect of the withdrawal agreement. Therefore, although the UK may still negotiate some kind of agreement, it doesn’t actually have to. As it currently stands, Erasmus has decreed that the participation of the UK in the Erasmus Programme will depend on the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Countries such as Switzerland, Norway, Turkey and Serbia are all ‘programme members’, despite not being part of the EU. The British government has said that should it not be able to reach an agreement related to the Erasmus Programme, it will seek to create similar alternative arrangements. But its position remains extremely uncertain.

Not only does this uncertainty leave students from the UK in a state of limbo, it also means that students from other European countries hoping to study in the UK are already choosing other European countries instead. This is for fear of not being able to fund a stint in the UK, should we decide to no longer participate in the Programme. According to The Times Higher Education Supplement, hosting EU and non-EU students significantly outweighs the cost to the taxpayer. Therefore, not only would a lack of foreign exchanges deteriorate the UK’s relations with the EU even further, it would have a huge effect on the economy.

But this isn’t the only variable that faces students hoping to live in another country. Coronavirus is the newest threat to the year abroad, having curtailed placements for the academic year 2019/20 and threatening to do the same for 2020/21. All over the country, Modern Languages students who must complete a year abroad in order to graduate face the possibility of having to complete their studies or placements virtually. This would take away the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in a new country, experience a new culture and, most importantly, to give the students valuable exposure to the language: something a textbook could never replicate.

A lack of foreign exchanges…would have a huge effect on the economy

Year abroad students have been left in an almost impossible dilemma, whereby they must pay for accommodation in order to give themselves the possibility of completing their year abroad in their chosen country, without knowing whether they’ll receive the funding – or even the possibility of actually getting to the country at all. And even if they do decide to go to the country, it’s likely that they’ll still complete their studies or work placement online anyway, due to the fact that many offices and universities will be unable to reopen due to government restrictions. In the long term, this puts students at a significant disadvantage compared to previous cohorts who were able to spend the full amount of time abroad and therefore have had full exposure to the language.

Of course, the effects of Covid-19 could never have been predicted – but those of renouncing our membership of the Erasmus Programme have been. And although some might say that this isn’t going to be the government’s priority when negotiating a Brexit deal, it really should be. Coronavirus presents a physical obstacle to movement between countries while Brexit presents a political one – how can we ‘make Britain great again’ if the lack of Erasmus funding presents a further, economic obstacle?

Image: KOBU agency via Unsplash.

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