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'It's heartbreaking': Concern for students amid fears UK will pull out of Erasmus programme post-Brexit

Thousands of students from all over Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, go to the UK as part of the programme each year, and vice versa.
Jan 10th 2020, 12:05 AM 21,875 27

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised about the future of the Erasmus+ programme in the UK post-Brexit after MPs in the House of Commons failed to back a vote that would make membership of the programme a priority in withdrawal negotiations with the European Union.

Thousands of students from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland take part in Erasmus+, which funds opportunities for young people to train and study across Europe, every year.

Thousands of students from all over Europe, including hundreds from the Republic of Ireland, also go to the UK as part of the programme each year.

On Wednesday night, Conservative MPs voted against a Liberal Democrat-backed amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which would have required the British government to seek continued participation in Erasmus+.

The amendment was rejected by 344 votes to 254, leading to concerns that the UK could exit the programme, impacting students across the UK as well as those who wish to travel to the UK. 

Ireland South MEP Billy Kelleher described the “empathic” defeat of the vote as “heartbreaking”, saying he was particularly concerned about students in Northern Ireland being “shut out” of future Erasmus opportunities.

“You have to say that the vote not only undermines the importance of the programme, it undermines citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland, many of whom consider themselves Irish and European and want to be part of Europe. 

“It’s just heartbreaking. We don’t want society to be individualistic, we want people to be outward looking, to challenge themselves, to see how other countries’ education systems work.

“[The vote] diminishes not just the opportunities of those in college, but the wider society and the whole educational ecosystem,” Kelleher told TheJournal.ie.

After criticism of the vote, the British Department of Education said the government remained “committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus+ programme if it is in our interests to do so”.

Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, said the vote amounted to “game playing by opposition parties” and “does not end or prevent the UK participating in Erasmus+”.

Kelleher said he would take the British government “at their word” but had serious concerns about the future of the programme.

The Fianna Fáil MEP said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party are “so focused on ‘getting Brexit done’ that they may not realise the long-term consequences of some of their actions”. 

“They are so ideologically driven by the pursuit of the holy grail of Brexit, they don’t seem to be looking at the bigger picture.”

Kelleher said he and other Irish MEPs “have a duty” to raise issues such as this which could result in citizens in Northern Ireland being “denied their rights”.

Students plan to lobby government

Robert Murtagh, president of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), said the union will continue to lobby the UK government in relation to the programme. 

“We regret the British government’s decision not to support this clause, but it does not mean the Erasmus+ is over for students [in Northern Ireland]. We will continue lobbying the UK government to urge them to commit to maintaining UK involvement in all parts of the Erasmus+ programme.

“Earlier this year the Irish government stated that they were keen to ensure that students in Northern Ireland would be able to continue to engage with the Erasmus+ programme.

“We are eager to work with them closely in the following months, so that future students continue to have the opportunities that so many have already enjoyed,” Murtagh said. 

He added that students in Northern Ireland have many concerns on “a plethora of different issues” over Brexit and the NUS-USI “will be lobbying and campaigning for a Brexit that protects the Good Friday Agreement, citizenship rights, ensures cross-border mobility and continued access to EU programmes such as Erasmus+”.

‘Regrettable’ 

The Erasmus+ programme has strong links to Ireland and was founded by a former Irish Attorney General, the late Peter Sutherland, when he was an EU Commissioner in the 1980s.

In the Republic of Ireland, Erasmus+ is run by the Higher Education Authority and Léargas, a non-profit organisation owned by the Department of Education and Skills. 

Gerry O’Sullivan, head of the Erasmus+ National Agency at the HEA, described the vote in the House of Commons as “a regrettable move”.

He noted that negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU are at a “very early” stage, but the vote highlights an issue that “goes to the heart of a lot of the British concern” in relation to membership of the EU.

“Freedom of movement is a key principle of higher education, it is a key principle of Erasmus+. Freedom of movement (between the UK and EU) is one of the issues that will have to be resolved during the negotiations, how they square that circle will be a challenge,” O’Sullivan told TheJournal.ie.

He noted that about 800 students from Northern Ireland engage with the Erasmus+ programme every year, some of whom study or do work experience in the Republic of Ireland.

Thousands of students from the Republic also take part in the programme each year, more than 400 of whom go to the UK – primarily to London to undertake placements is sectors such as finance, hospitality and construction. 

O’Sullivan said this experience is invaluable to students, helping them make contacts and get jobs after college. 

A spokesperson for Léargas reiterated the importance of Erasmus+ , saying the programme “funds people from all walks of life to connect with their peers in Europe, from young people organising international youth exchanges to school teachers job-shadowing with their European colleagues”.

The spokesperson said Léargas supports more than 10,000 people from Ireland to take part in Erasmus+ projects each year, many of which involve exchange and partnership with the UK.

“We believe that programmes like Erasmus+ that strengthen understanding and cooperation between people in Europe are a benefit to all our communities.

“We welcome the statement from the UK Department of Education that the UK remains committed to maintaining exchanges with the EU, including potentially through the 2021-2027 Erasmus+ programme.”

“We would like to reiterate the European Commission’s advice that the UK can continue to take part in the current Erasmus+ programme until its close, if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified before its departure from the EU,” they said. 

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