University challenge: what kind of ties will EU higher education maintain with the UK in a post-Brexit world?


Students and teachers from the European Union still want to take part in exchanges with British universities, but the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ scheme has thrown up obstacles and increased costs. Some of the least privileged individuals, institutions and regions could lose out, writes Sarah Morris.

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Library of Social and Legal Sciences at the Carlos III University in Madrid, the UK's fourth most popular Erasmus destination.

British students and teachers have studied at EU universities since the first 1,000 or so pioneers joined the Erasmus scheme, along with 10 other countries in 1987. Yet, three and a half decades later, the British government headed by Boris Johnson announced a surprise decision to leave Erasmus+, to the disappointment of EU universities and their British partner institutions. The withdrawal came despite a House of Lords report in the UK that praised the benefits of continuing in a well-established programme after Brexit, and despite Johnson saying in January 2020 there was “no threat to the Erasmus scheme”.

“Erasmus madness (a portrait of Brexit)”, was the headline of Spanish newspaper El Pais in January 2021 on the UK’s decision to withdraw from the programme and to fund its students to go abroad through the Turing Scheme. “On the one hand, it shows the limited value placed on what the presence of foreign students in the country brings to its educational institutions and society”, wrote journalist Andrea Rizzi. “On the other hand… the will to destroy what has been created and an optimism bordering on faith of the advantages of going it alone.”

New hurdles to old friendships

In EU universities, situated in countries ranging from founding members like Germany to later Member States such as Czechia, the UK’s exit from Erasmus+ has left them with the immediate task of helping students, teachers and researchers negotiate the headaches of visas and other new requirements for stints in England, Scotland and Wales. While the impact of Brexit is still to be fully felt due to the limitations on travel resulting from the pandemic, and the possibility of UK universities extending their participation in the scheme until May 2023, EU universities already report a less welcoming environment for their students and teachers heading to the UK.

The process of obtaining a visa adds to the costs for individuals, with a typical student visa being about €400, and the application process is overly complicated and seemingly arbitrary, report universities. “Sometimes someone is granted a visa but in the same circumstances another student isn’t”, says Màrius Martínez, Vice-rector of International Relations at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) in Spain. “Sometimes the online process isn’t working. Sometimes the phone isn’t answered. The process isn’t working and it’s not clear why.”

Martínez wants “clarification” from the British authorities on their international relations policy regarding higher education and believes colleagues in the UK still want to continue exchanges and cooperation with the EU. “The universities most shocked by the end of Erasmus were the British ones”, he adds.

Some of the visa requirements have discouraged some EU citizens from choosing what was always a popular destination because of the chance to improve individuals’ English. In Spain, demand to head to the UK with Erasmus has always been high, and links were strong as Spain was also UK Erasmus students’ top choice. But some Spanish students are being put off the UK due to the uncertainties surrounding extra paperwork and costs. At UAB, 20 students signed up for Erasmus to the UK for the full 2022/23 year, less than half the 46 students who went for the full year in pre-pandemic 2018. At the Carlos III University in Madrid, where the UK is the fourth most popular Erasmus destination, in normal years, 10 students apply for every Erasmus place to the UK, but that fell to eight in the 2022/23 year.

As well as paperwork, another disincentive has been a new language requirement introduced at little notice once British host universities began revising their post-Brexit partnerships. Many universities now require a C1 level of English before arrival in the UK. The Carlos III University’s Vice-rector of Internationalisation, Matilde Sánchez Fernández, feels that will be a temporary obstacle to students with more time to prepare and expects demand to recover in the medium term if universities can secure stable replacement financing for the UK.

Bilateral deals

Most EU universities have decided to sign bilateral deals with existing partners established during the Erasmus era to allow student exchanges to continue. Their main strategy is to secure fee waivers for their students and then finance some of the other costs through Erasmus, which allows universities to allocate up to 20 per cent of each of their mobility projects towards outgoing mobility for any third country in the world. “That flexibility is really very good”, says the UAB’s Martínez.

However, that funding can’t meet current demand for UK places or all student costs. Humboldt University in Berlin said 158 of its students went to the UK in 2019/20. “In the future, we will not be able to fund more than a fifth with any kind of grant, most of which will be considerably less than Erasmus+ funding”, said spokesman Hans-Christoph Keller.

Humboldt University is negotiating as many cooperation agreements as possible with UK partner institutions, including more short-term mobility options for students, since “some students might still be able to go to the UK without funding, if they are exempt from fees”. However, there are few current funding options for existing Erasmus staff exchanges and traineeships, fear many universities.

“The greatest difficulty lies in finding the right financing for mobility, particularly given that the students will have to face additional costs if they need to request a study visa and pay medical insurance”, said Dámaso López García, Vice-rector for International Relations and Cooperation at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). The rectors at Spanish universities and the Spanish Service for Internationalisation (SEPIE) are looking for “sustainable ways to cooperate with the UK for all Spanish universities”, he added. Outside the umbrella of clear Erasmus conditions, many universities are keen to see common criteria when negotiating with British universities, at least at a national, if not an EU, level.

Yet those types of agreements are taking time to emerge. Some students will be able to use public and private student grants or loans to fund UK stays. The Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in the Belgian capital said its least wealthy students would be able to receive a grant from the regional institution, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation’s Student Mobility Aid Fund (FAME). However, inevitably the patchwork of funding across the EU for stays at a UK university will likely result in poorer families and regions losing out on UK places, particularly since they may struggle more to negotiate the visa process.

Switching focus

Most EU universities want to sign agreements based on the current Erasmus+ programme, favouring student exchanges through reciprocity, which helps bed down mutual commitments on fee waivers, student care and mutual academic recognition. They envisage two-way exchanges with partner organisations replacing Erasmus funding for British students through the Turing scheme.

However, some universities have discovered former British partners aren’t interested in two-way exchanges and are switching their focus away from continental Europe. “When I’ve asked my international relations colleagues about Turing, I’ve been told it won’t really be used for the EU but for other regions”, says Lukáš Pospíšil, Director of International Relations at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague.

Brexit was one factor in the cancellation of a double graduate degree offered between his university and Cranfield University in the UK.

In turn, universities like his might be forced to reduce placements to the UK because of the obstacles. He says he won’t prioritise using third-party Erasmus+ funding to send students to the UK since there is higher demand from students and faculty to target countries like the United States, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, Japan and Israel, which include regions prioritised for science and technology by organisations like the Czech Science Foundation.

Some EU universities have found securing fee waivers hard since some British higher institutions want the lucrative fees they are now charging EU citizens as overseas students. Student interest in Erasmus+ places at English-speaking university courses in Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark has already picked up. With EU students in the UK being charged fees of well over €20,000, there are potential opportunities for universities in Member States offering courses taught in English at EU universities. The Czech University of Life Sciences, for instance, offers 40 Bachelor of Arts and Master’s programmes in English for prices in the region of €3,000. “There are other options than the UK for high-quality study in English”, says Pospíšil.