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Erasmus-plus Programme

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 25 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in securing funding for the United Kingdom’s continued participation in the Erasmus+ programme, or its successor, after the end of 2020.

My Lords, our participation in the current Erasmus+ programme is already fully funded. The UK’s participation in the next Erasmus+ programme, including the cost of any participation, is a matter for negotiation with the European Union. The UK is considering participation in a number of EU programmes where it is in both parties’ interest to do so, and if the UK negotiates participation in the next Erasmus+ programme, the specific funding arrangements will be a matter for the upcoming spending review.

Compared to Erasmus, a replacement scheme such as the Swiss model could cost the same or even more to keep the full range of its benefits, from universities to schools, from the arts to apprenticeships, from the year abroad to the classroom language assistants coming into the UK. Which of these would the Government be prepared to give up, and why reinvent the wheel rather than become a non-EU programme country, like Norway, Iceland and others?

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, is right to point out the wide range of activities covered by the Erasmus+ scheme. Of course, we are considering all those benefits in the round as we negotiate with the European Union, seeking to continue to take part in the programme if we can reach a deal that is fair and proportionate and represents good value for money for the British taxpayer.

My Lords, in answering a Cardiff MP, Anna McMorrin, on 11 June, Michael Gove acknowledged how important is the Erasmus+ scheme for the devolved Governments and that the UK Government will continue to seek access to this programme. If, for any reason, the UK Government fail to secure an agreement, will they be prepared to enable the devolved Administrations to seek their own arrangements with the EU to facilitate the continued availability of Erasmus+ for students and young people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

My Lords, international relations are of course a reserved matter for the UK Government, but the Government are committed to working closely with the devolved Administrations throughout the negotiations with the European Union, to ensure that we can reach a future relationship that works in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The noble Lord is right to point out the benefits that Erasmus+ has brought to all the nations of the United Kingdom, and that is what we are seeking to achieve in the negotiations.

I ask my noble friend the Minister to be specific. Where have the negotiations got on this particular point? In March 2019, the then Minister, one Mr Johnson, said that the UK was drawing up alternative plans. What are those alternative plans and what stage have they reached? This continual delay does not augur well for global Britain, which will certainly need a workforce competent in languages.

My Lords, I may have to disappoint but probably not surprise my noble friend when I say that I am not able to give a running commentary on the state of the negotiations. I draw his attention, and that of other noble Lords, to the Written Ministerial Statement by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which made clear that participation in EU programmes has been a part of the negotiations and discussions that have taken place so far. My noble friend is right to point out that, as any responsible Government would, we are preparing for all eventualities, which includes looking at a domestic replacement, should that be necessary, but we are seeking to find a fair and proportionate deal that allows us to continue to participate.

My Lords, my question follows on well from the previous one. Erasmus is the world’s most effective programme. It allows student exchange for the valuable experience that they gain from outward mobility. What possible advantage do the Government think they would gain by walking away from Erasmus to set up a new global student exchange scheme, as they propose, that the Erasmus programme does not already offer?

My Lords, we are not seeking to walk away from Erasmus+; we are seeking to negotiate a fair and proportionate deal to remain in it. The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out the size and scope of Erasmus and the benefits it has brought many people, but UK students participate in a number of other mobility schemes and have done for many years. As we leave the European Union and seek a global future, we want students to be able to benefit from mobility not just with 27 countries on the European continent but around the world.

My Lords, more than ever, post Brexit, we need to find ways to enhance our relationships with the rest of the EU. One of the most obvious low-hanging fruits is the remarkably successful Erasmus+ programme, which I know from my experience as an academic is of enormous value for our young people, who begin lifelong international relationships. Yet, instead of grasping this opportunity to invest in our future, the UK Government seem less than enthusiastic when they talk of considering elements of the programme in a standard third-country relationship.

I think the noble Lord was cut off slightly, but I got the gist of what he was asking. I do not fully accept the characterisation of the Government’s attitude towards Erasmus+. We are seeking to negotiate to continue in it, if we can reach a fair and proportionate deal. I point out to the noble Lord and others that a number of other non-EU countries—Norway, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey—all take part in Erasmus as full participants, not as partner countries, none of them being members of the European Union.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his new post and say how delighted we are to see a full set of Ministers with us in the Chamber today; that is excellent news. Can the Government guarantee that they will publish details of any replacement or stop-gap Erasmus scheme well in advance, so that universities can prepare and students do not lose out on the opportunity to study or work abroad due to lack of information? They need to know the details in September. It is even more important than ever, post Brexit, that the next generation befriends and understands those in other countries.

I thank the noble Baroness for her words of welcome. She is absolutely right to point out that it is important for universities, students and others to have some certainty about the immediate future. One difficulty is that this is subject to our negotiations with the European Union, which are running throughout this year. It is also the case that the EU itself is looking at the new Erasmus programme in light of its own budget, the multiannual financial framework, which could also be delayed until December. I am very glad that, under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, our participation in the current programme is fully funded, including any projects that are launched under it and which go beyond the end of this year.

Having regard to the effect of Covid-19 on our young people, is not the opportunity offered by the Erasmus programme to them essential for the years to come?

My noble and learned friend is absolutely right. As we have been unable to travel, the importance of exchange and being able to meet people from around the world is underlined. Indeed, the current pandemic shows the importance of education not stopping at any borders. We should be proud that another UK university has this week launched trials with humans of a vaccine which could benefit not just British subjects but people around the world.

My Lords, the Erasmus+ programme is one of the successes of the European Union. As the Minister has pointed out, non-EU countries such as Norway and Turkey are members. Can he assure us that the United Kingdom will endeavour to continue to be a member of the Erasmus programme, irrespective of the outcome of the present ongoing talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which will end on 31 December this year?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out that the fact that a number of non-EU countries want to participate in the Erasmus programme is a testament to its strengths and successes. I cannot give him absolutely the assurance he seeks, because our participation is of course contingent on those negotiations. We hope to continue if we can reach a deal which is fair and proportionate and which continues to give value for money to the British taxpayer.

Universities UK International has estimated that leaving Erasmus could cost Britain up to £243 million a year. Does the Minister think that this is a price worth paying in lost income and influence? If a replacement scheme is pursued by the Government, will he commit to early consultation and to the covering of any loss of income to universities and colleges?

My Lords, I am not familiar with the figures that the noble Lord cites from Universities UK. I have seen that it points out that, of UK students who take part in mobility schemes, almost half of them take part in mobility schemes beyond Erasmus+. We hope to be able to continue in it if we can reach a fair and equitable deal, but of course we want British students and international students coming to the UK to take part in a variety of mobility schemes, as they currently do.