Erasmus in the UK is a unique experience. The question of “why bother?” immediately arises when the idea of merely hopping across the Irish Sea is entertained by students. The result of being relentlessly asked this question has led to those who contemplate going why, indeed, go to the UK for Erasmus, when it is so similar to Ireland? Is it worth it?
Firstly, the “why” aspect of how one might end up in the UK on an Erasmus exchange must be clarified. Erasmus, like the wand in Harry Potter, chooses the wizard (or in this case, the student). The student can give priority to certain universities based on their preference list, but that list is itself limited by a number of factors. For example, Trinity is only linked with a certain number of European universities. Your choice of these specific universities is limited further by your department of study, and what your course requires. In my case, my choice was ultimately limited to three English-speaking universities, in which I could study both English and Film simultaneously. So, in essence, the choice often does not lie with the student, but with the institution.
“The move from Ireland to the UK is undeniably less of a great leap, and more of a small step.”
In what you could call the spiritus mundi of Erasmus, I chose to venture into unfamiliar territory. Going on Erasmus, no matter the location, involves such a leap of faith. No matter how much you might research a city or university, there’s no way to truly experience what living there will be like until you go. The move from Ireland to the UK is undeniably less of a great leap, and more of a small step. However, while the UK and Ireland share many similarities, there are still fundamental differences that make the Erasmus experience unique and worthwhile.
A major aspect of any Erasmus exchange is meeting new people, and the experience of an Irish student meeting people in the UK is a very specific one. One potential barrier to meeting people in mainland Europe is often the language, as it can be difficult to meet people in a city where English is not natively spoken. In going to the UK, this barrier is lifted, which opens up a whole world of potential. There is no barrier to meeting people in college, joining clubs and societies, and even getting a job.
For language-based courses, many Erasmus exchanges exist for the sole purpose of abandoning English and improving one’s European language skills. In these cases, the language barrier is seen as an “opportunity to learn”. However, it is worth noting that there is often a tendency for English-speaking students on language exchanges to group together for their year abroad. This is an excellent way to make friends, through meeting fellow Irish, British or American students abroad, but it goes to show that assimilating with the locals on Erasmus can often be far more difficult than one might anticipate. This is one benefit of an Erasmus in the UK – in speaking the language, and sharing similar cultures, you are much better positioned to meet people and integrate quicker.
However, the experience of an Irish student on Erasmus in the UK is far from plain sailing. There is a tendency for native English-speaking Erasmus students to stick together once they are in mainland Europe. In the UK, the reverse is true. The non-native English speaking Erasmus students stick together, which leaves the Irish student in a tricky position. It is hard to feel like a “true” Erasmus student when fellow Erasmus students are experiencing so much more of a vast change than those coming from Ireland. The cultural change is simply not as monumental. In our induction packs, we were provided with a fact file called “Moving to the UK” that gave advice like “be aware: people will say ‘sorry’ even when they are not apologising”, and “in the UK, it is polite to queue in an orderly fashion, for example at a bus stop”. For the Irish student, this is not new information.
“There is a sense that education is prioritised here, not profit, which is a real change for any Trinity student.”
The Irish student in the UK occupies a tricky middle-ground area – not different enough to be a “true” exchange student, but equally, still existing as an outsider looking in. There are minute differences. My British housemates were shocked to hear about the fact that Irish students do not receive any student loans, and that rent in Dublin is literally double the cost of what it is here. “So you can only really go to uni if you have enough money?” my housemate asked. “Isn’t that a bit unfair?” She makes a good point.
There are a plethora of benefits to spending your Erasmus at what’s known as a “campus uni” in the UK. Often boasting recently built buildings, these impressive universities offer a range of services that trump Trinity in many regards. There is decent, cheap food available in multiple student cafes. The library is large and has multiple bathrooms and water fountains on each floor. The student bar doubles up as a nightclub during the week, running nights with affordable entry and drinks for just £2. It is a world away from home.
It is these small improvements that combine to make an overall student experience that is far nicer than Trinity in many ways. In the University of East Anglia, where I am studying, students seem to be reasonably happy with their university board and students’ union. It is certainly a welcome change to be on a campus that’s not thronged with tourists. While I was left financially broke thanks to Trinity’s woefully Byzantine Erasmus grant system, I was able to survive comfortably because of the very low cost of living. There is a sense that education is prioritised here, not profit, which is a real change for any Trinity student.
“I encountered one student who was at pains to explain to me that Michael Collins was a “British revolutionary”, not an Irish one.”
An Irish student in the UK will almost inevitably encounter some form of post-colonial ignorance, whether it is intentional or not. This in itself makes the Erasmus experience unique, if only to revive your latent national pride and identity. I left Dublin in September cursing Ireland and seeking something, anything, that was new and different. It took a week until a British student asked me “so what really is the difference between the North and South of Ireland?” and I was a patriot once more. What many of the British seem to lack is basic historical education on their past, which inevitably leads to some questionable political views. For example, I encountered one student who was at pains to explain to me that Michael Collins was a “British revolutionary”, not an Irish one. Despite some small instances of unwitting ignorant attitudes, the majority of my interactions have been positive, as the British are by and large overwhelmingly welcoming towards the Irish.
Ultimately, while an Erasmus exchange to the UK may seem like a strange move, it is worth experiencing. Getting out of Ireland, and Dublin specifically, is an invaluable experience no matter the location. Experience a different city and cultural climate. Meet new people, try new modules, and join a different society. These opportunities won’t be open to you forever, and where possible, one should always choose “the road less travelled by” – even if it leads to Britain.