The UK government is drawing up plans for an alternative student mobility programme in case access to Erasmus+ is lost after Brexit, the universities minister has confirmed.
Addressing sector leaders at Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum, Chris Skidmore said that the UK was “open to exploring participation in the successor scheme to the current Erasmus+ programme” after the UK leaves the European Union.
But, he added, the UK was “also considering a wide range of options with regards to the future of international exchange and collaboration in education and training, including a potential domestic alternative to the Erasmus+ programme”, Mr Skidmore said.
“The potential benefits of the UK establishing its own international mobility scheme would include the ability to tailor the scheme to UK needs and target the funding where it is most needed,” the minister said in a pre-recorded video address. “I will be driving forward this work in the coming months.”
The UK’s future involvement in Erasmus+, which accounts for more than half of all international mobility of UK students, has been in doubt ever since the UK voted to leave the EU. The UK has pledged to cover the funding of continued participation until the end of 2020 under the terms of its withdrawal agreement, and has agreed to cover awards approved before exit day in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
But sector leaders had been concerned by the lack of progress on a domestic alternative, in the event that the UK decided not to participate further.
While sector leaders will welcome Mr Skidmore’s announcement, it came alongside warnings from champions of the Swiss alternative to Erasmus+ of the challenges involved in supporting such schemes on a national level.
Switzerland has been excluded from participating fully in Erasmus+ since 2014, when it voted to place limits on immigration from the EU in a referendum. Since then it has been operating its Swiss-European Mobility Programme as a partial solution.
Julia Grunenfelder, European adviser for education at SwissCore, which oversees Swiss academic collaboration with the EU, stressed that while the alternative programme had been successful in widening participation in foreign exchanges, it was “impossible” for a national programme to fully replicate the network provided by the EU.
“We can participate but it is always with limitations,” she told a panel session at the forum. Providing adequate funding presented a major challenge, she explained, since, as a non-EU member, the Swiss government is required to fund incoming as well as outgoing students participating in exchanges.
“We also acknowledge there is this European added value [in Erasmus+] that we cannot replace with national programmes,” said Dr Grunenfelder. “We have received lot of goodwill in the past but we ask ourselves, will it continue?”
Alex Hughes, deputy vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Westminster, added that a UK student mobility programme should offer “flexibility” in order to expand participation rates.
“Shorter exchange programmes – even just one-week opportunities – will be critical,” she said, explaining that many of her own students saw longer stints as a financial or emotional challenge.
Meanwhile, European representatives at the conference stressed their commitment to partnerships with UK institutions.
Mari Sundli Tveit, rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and chair of Universities Norway, said that she had urged Norwegian researchers to ignore advice given to them by government funders earlier this year to reconsider their partnerships with the UK in light of the risks presented by Brexit.
“The UK is too important a research partner for Norway to lose,” she said, adding that more than half of her own university’s Horizon 2020 grants are collaborations with UK academics. “My advice to them has been to disregard this advice”.
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