Speculation on whether or not the UK would remain within the EU and EEA’s student mobility programme, Erasmus+, has ensued since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016. A last-minute decision resulting in the United Kingdom resolving to stop participation in all aspects of Erasmus+ will have the potential to damage the UK and Ireland’s relations on top of Brexit alone. British and Irish students will find themselves missing out on the opportunity to share perspectives and cultures that have been exchanged for the 30 years that the Erasmus+ scheme has been running for.
Although the UK are planning on replacing their participation in Erasmus+ with a new, more internationally oriented scheme called the Turing scheme, its focus has turned away from the UK’s closest neighbours and instead emphasised exchanges in countries farther afield, abandoning their European ties. This great loss will have an impact on many students and the countries they originate from in a variety of ways, seeing the United Kingdom’s younger population losing out on the inclusion in the EU that many of them voted for.
The cultural aspect of the exchange is one of the main things Britain will lose out on with Ireland – with the ease of the Erasmus+ scheme, Europeans’ ability to travel with the security of a monthly grant and direct admission to another university, as well as full facilitation through their home university, cannot be replicated. This rendering Erasmus+ among the easiest ways to experience another culture, it is disheartening to see Britain retreating from this opportunity.
“British school systems for the most part ignore the long-intertwined history of Ireland and Britain, and as such it’s no surprise that there are often common misunderstandings and stereotypes that need to be schooled out of young people as much as possible.
As Erasmus+ is one of the primary agents for new cultural experiences for young people, it promotes an in-depth understanding of other cultures. Given the complex relationship the UK and Ireland have always had, the importance of the two countries fostering a better level of understanding between their people is tenfold. British school systems for the most part ignore the long-intertwined history of Ireland and Britain, and as such it’s no surprise that there are often common misunderstandings and stereotypes that need to be schooled out of young people as much as possible. This lack of understanding stretches not only to the educational sphere, but even from the top down; lest we forget in 2018 when Boris Johnson, acting as Foreign Secretary at the time, compared the Irish border to the border between Camden and Islington.
This being said, the long history of Irish emigration to the UK is one that has not necessarily been one of education and cultural exchange. The difficulties in the past between our two countries rooted in sectarianism and resentment have resulted in discrimination of Irish people in England and a relationship that is now finally on the mend. Britain pulling out of Erasmus+ is something that is bound to impede on the gradually improving dynamic between the two countries.
“These connections are so important for Ireland and the UK to have at the moment; as a result of less Irish and UK students being given the opportunity to study in each country through Erasmus+, many of these interpersonal connections may never come to fruition.”
Connections are also a huge part of Erasmus+ that the UK and Ireland may lose part of between the two countries: connections to people, such as lifelong friends and partners, are part and parcel of exchange programs. Not only this, but Erasmus+ fosters connections to universities, to places of work, and to the cities and countries of destination themselves. These connections are so important for Ireland and the UK to have at the moment; as a result of less Irish and UK students being given the opportunity to study in each country through the Erasmus+, many of these interpersonal connections may never come to fruition. Bonds created with certain cities where the students may have returned to later in life are never made. The London Irish Centre keeps a large archive online of these stories and photographs of Irish in Britain, exemplifying these lifelong connections.
As a result of not being allowed to study in Britain under the Erasmus+ scheme, Irish students will look elsewhere for their studies, at other European neighbours. This could be considered a shame: the UK is our closest neighbour, and English as a shared language creates many more options for study for the students who aren’t doing a modern language for their degree, but still want to experience a different culture or live away for a year.
“With a potential for a United Ireland or Scottish Independence, Britain needs to be sensitive to a changing diplomatic situation, and needs to understand Ireland now more than ever.”
The students who choose to go on Erasmus+ to enrich their studies with new experiences are part of the current student generation who will be shaping the future in years to come. Students who are forced to turn their backs on our closest neighbour, with whom we share so much of our history and language, embedded within a deeply complex relationship, will look elsewhere for future connection. With a potential for a United Ireland or Scottish Independence, Britain needs to be sensitive to a changing diplomatic situation, and needs to understand Ireland now more than ever. The connections we have made with Britain thus far should have been strengthened as opposed to undermined, to create more opportunities to cooperate in the future.