Yes, get Brexit done – but don’t burn all our bridges at the same time

There’s a well-travelled student in my GCSE class who already has firm plans to study and live abroad once he’s finished at his Sheffield school.

Thursday, 16th January 2020, 9:00 am
Updated Friday, 17th January 2020, 5:47 pm
Erasmus - European exchange programme has seen thousands of young people study part of their degree in a different country since it was set up in the 1980s.

What course he’ll end up doing is still up in the air – it may be something linked to engineering or with a focus on science – but he already knows that he would like some of the course to take place outside of the UK.

His thirst for seeing other places, experiencing other cultures and learning about how other societies go about their life is admirable – but I’m concerned that he and many others like him have suffered a kick in the teeth this month as MPs voted to pull out of a well-established European exchange scheme. The name ‘Erasmus’ may not mean much to most, but this European exchange programme has seen thousands of young people study part of their degree in a different country since the 1980s.

There are currently 37 countries involved and it means students can apply to spend between three months and a year in one of them, providing a priceless opportunity to spend time abroad, make new friends and experience life in another culture.

As part of the Brexit hoo-ha in Westminster, however, a series of votes were held last week on what to keep and what to ditch when the negotiations to leave the European Union.

One amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement suggested that the UK’s membership of Erasmus should continue – but it was heavily defeated by the new working majority Boris Johnson enjoys.

The new Tory MPs in South Yorkshire voted to leave the Erasmus programme – including former teacher Miriam Cates, who has herself prepared many Sheffield students for their own journey to university.

I just cannot get my head around this decision; it’s now inevitable that Brexit will happen but just why we are wanting to cut ourselves away from every positive link we have built up is extremely short-sighted.

You don’t have to look far on social media to find professional people saying how much difference the Erasmus programme has made to themselves and their chosen career.

One woman who went on to become a professor said on Twitter that the programme made her who she was, developing her confidence and presenting her with career ideas and opportunities.

Another student – proudly stating he was a ‘working class lad’ – praised the Erasmus programme for giving him the opportunity to study in Prague, something he would never have done otherwise.

Of course, European universities are not going to close their doors to British students; there will still be opportunities for our young people to go and study in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.

But what will happen is that this experience will become harder to gain – and it’s likely to become more of an elitist experience. Those with money will be more likely to research and fund the foreign study and the greatest harm will be done to the keen students who really needed to secure EU funding to take part in the programme.

Cutting ties with Erasmus, of course, will reduce the opportunities of British students wanting to go abroad but will also affect foreign students wanting to come and study here. It seems such a great pity to deny our young people these important life chances.

A range of opinions have been shared about Erasmus over the past week, including by those who feel that the education programme has more to do with building a European empire than pushing the case of education.

But over the last couple of decades foreign study has become more popular in this country than many thought was possible, and the chance to spend a term in Rome or Barcelona has enhanced the degree experience of thousands.

Just what we are achieving by pulling out of the Erasmus programme is not really clear to me; just how we are benefiting as a nation by reducing the opportunities young people had to engage with people from other countries is a mystery to me.

When the Lib Dem amendment failed to receive enough support in the House of Commons, it was an indication that many MPs had stopped listening to rational arguments in a blinkered such to get Brexit done.

Get Brexit done by all means, it’s what the country voted for, but there’s no need to burn all our bridges as we retreat over the white cliffs of Dover.

It’s the young people being denied opportunities such as Erasmus that will have the job of rebuilding them all.