David Johnston

The trouble with Erasmus is not just the cost

The trouble with Erasmus is not just the cost
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It was curious to see the explosion of outrage over the UK no longer participating in the Erasmus scheme. We were told it broadened young people’s horizons by sending British undergraduates to study at a European university. We were told our young people are being deprived of this opportunity. But having spent my pre-politics career working with young people, Erasmus and deprivation are not things I’ve ever associated with one another.

The outrage is largely coming from a collection of the firmly middle class and affluent anti-Brexit folk – TV broadcasters and QCs among them. They had been on Erasmus themselves and expected it to be a rite of passage for their children and their children’s children, not least for the advantage it will likely give them in the labour market. But I worked with thousands of young people for nearly two decades before I became an MP and almost none of them had taken part in Erasmus. It wasn’t that they did not study languages or go to good universities – many did. Rather, it was that the young people we worked with were from low-income families.

At my last charity, the kids were certainly aspirational. They were typically the children of cleaners, taxi-drivers or shop assistants – two-thirds went on to Russell Group universities and they’d typically find work with a group of 150 elite employers. Bright and ambitious people, but few of them had even heard of Erasmus, never mind applied for it. To them, it just didn’t seem relevant.

Official data is hard to come by, but a large study in 2006 found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, around 50 per cent were from families with a high or considerably higher than average income. Across all countries sampled, only 14 per cent of respondents reported their income being lower than average while almost two thirds had at least one parent who held a job as an executive, professional or technician.

In 2014-15, the rate at which those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus was 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap had widened since 2006-07.

Of course, among those opposed to the UK’s withdrawal from the scheme is the odd person from a working class background who did Erasmus. But there are exceptions to every rule – you can find the occasional judge and diplomat from a working class background if you look hard enough. But they are exactly that: exceptions.

The reasons for there being few working-class young people on Erasmus range from lack of awareness to lack of interest: Europe really isn’t the most interesting region of the world to every young person, particularly if your family tree traces back to Asia, the Americas or the Caribbean, as it does for many young Brits. The new Turing scheme will see over £100 million spent on helping 35,000 young people from universities, colleges and schools go on placements and exchanges around the world from next September, including to Europe but not just to Europe. It will rightly target those schools and areas that did not see many people participate in Erasmus.

So the argument over Erasmus mirrors that over the EU in general. Prominent Remain voters say it’s great to have open borders; prominent Leave voters retort that’s only if you don’t mind the high border around Europe itself.

One of my enduring memories of the general election campaign was a woman originally from Zambia who told me she had been working for the NHS for 9 years and couldn’t apply for settled status, yet if she was from Europe she could have done so within 5 years. ‘What about Britain’s relationships with the Commonwealth?’, she asked me. I agree.

From trade to immigration, the debate seems to be carried on as if the world ends at Europe’s borders. Brexit means switching to a truly global perspective: yes, engage with Europe, but with the rest of the world too. This principle should apply to our student exchanges.

My argument is not that those who take part in Erasmus don’t benefit, nor that those who benefit should all be of modest means. But where taxpayers’ money is being spent, we should see more working-class young people getting their first experience of being abroad, not just the affluent getting their latest experience of being abroad.