Brexit and the cultural importance of Erasmus

, by Elsa Robinson

Brexit and the cultural importance of Erasmus
The Erasmus scheme provides a unique opportunity to study at a university in a different country for one or two semesters. Wokandapix (pixabay.com)

Ever since Britain voted in favour of leaving the European Union, many students have been acutely worried about how the vote will affect their aspirations to learn foreign languages and experience life in a foreign country.

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has thrown its participation in many long-standing programs like Erasmus into jeopardy. Currently, 53% of British students who study abroad do so under this scheme. As of now, the UK is still a part of the Erasmus scheme as it works in cycles, with changes every 7 years. Both British citizens hoping to go abroad as part of their degree or work and EU students hoping to study in the UK

As the scheme comes with generous funding that the EU is proposing to double for the next cycle, it is inclusive of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who would otherwise not get such an opportunity.

Future prospects for hopeful British Erasmus students look bleak

While it is crucial to recognise that not every country that participates in the Erasmus scheme is an EU member state (Turkey and Norway are notable exceptions), these countries have long-standing agreements with the EU.

Unfortunately, the British Parliament’s apparent disregard for this issue does not bode well for the future of our participation in the scheme. On 8th January 2020, Parliament voted against an amendment which would have obliged the government to negotiate continued full membership and participation in the Erasmus program. This was Clause 10 of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and it was put forth by a group of Liberal Democrat, SNP and Green MPs.

Despite assurance that the UK could negotiate its own agreements with different countries and institutions, it’s unlikely that it would be as successful or as well-funded as the Erasmus scheme. The consequence would surely be not just a reduction in the numbers of British students able to study abroad, it would also likely mean that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those in marginalised groups are further excluded from access to this experience.

There are many benefits of living abroad. Unfortunately, many British students will now miss out

Though I have never taken part in the Erasmus scheme, I have been living and working in France for the best part of two years now. I can personally attest to the benefits of living in a foreign country, forming friendships and getting to know others over here, and speaking my target language every day.

Working as a language assistant has been challenging at times, but rarely do I leave my schools without a sense of accomplishment. Living here has not only forged my future career path and connections with numerous friends and colleagues, but it has also been hugely beneficial for my language skills.

English speakers’ monolingualism is notorious throughout Europe, and languages have taken another hit in the UK as a result of Brexit, with increasing numbers of students showing no interest in learning foreign languages. However, learning languages has always been one of my biggest passions, and the best way to learn is through immersion. My spoken French has improved, needless to say, after having lived here, through multiple acquaintances of many different nationalities.

By living abroad, students can find new ways to bridge the cultural divide

Though we all struggle at times, we are united by our shared love of the language and country. What is surprising about learning a foreign language, however, is that it enhances your appreciation and understanding of your native language.

Though teaching English is not perhaps what all those who choose to go abroad engage in, teaching your own culture and language to others while learning a different one at the same time is incredibly enriching and interesting, and has formed the basis for my own love of teaching.

Finding ways to bridge the cultural divide and finding joy in those things we have in common (such as one recent lesson on Pokemon) has been wonderful. Particularly when teaching younger children, whose minds are not so rigid as their older counterparts and who have asked eager questions about the UK and certain facets of our life there. Similarly, I have been interested in asking them questions about life in France and sharing my own perceptions with them.

Solidarity comes through mutual understanding

This is only one facet of the possibilities that the Erasmus scheme could offer to the students who participate. A good friend of mine undertook the Erasmus scheme in Hungary, spending six months researching and learning at the Central European University, and has a similar story of personal and cultural enrichment.

The current Erasmus cycle will end this year, and the question of whether the UK will continue to participate in the Erasmus program from 2021- 2027 is still up in the air, and not likely to be resolved any time soon with the Covid-19 outbreak at the forefront of most people’s minds. Though MPs voted against an amendment which would ensure the UK would negotiate to continue the scheme, this does not mean it definitely will not.

British lawmakers would do well to realise that solidarity comes through understanding, and if we are to face the global challenges ahead of us, we need more of it than ever before. Helping students continue to participate in the Erasmus scheme despite Brexit would be a step in the right direction.

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