Blog by Professor Ian Murray, Global Lead, Council of Deans of Health Scotland;
Head of School, Robert Gordon University
As time marches on we are no clearer on what form of Brexit we will secure and if indeed there will be a Brexit. It is clear, or as clear as it can be, that some of the options could involve some form of membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) or European Free Trade Association (EFTA) which could include a facility for UK universities to be part of the Erasmus + exchange programme. Of course it’s these very arrangements that tie the UK to the EU that so many who voted for Brexit want to see end. It’s my view that Erasmus+ and all its potential benefits were far from the minds of people when they voted in the EU referendum in 2016. I for one believed, naively, that we would be a member of the EEA, regardless of the outcome, and would continue to be able to be part of the Erasmus family, just like Norway. How wrong was I?
So we currently have short term Government commitments that allow for students and staff committed to exchanges for those experiences to be completed subject to their being a so called ‘hard’ Brexit. If there’s a ‘soft’ Brexit we have short term commitments that will cover until the actual day of leaving the EU. We are being advised to talk to our partners; I currently have 12 different partners across 7 different EU/EEA countries and we are engaging in conversations about future agreements. The anxiety around this is on both sides, the uncertainty is unhelpful and we may end up with less exchange opportunities as a result. Up to now our partners want to find a way forward, as do we, but the prolonged uncertainty isn’t helpful. In the medium to long term we need that certainty, we need to be able to promote our courses with the excellent opportunities that exchange placements bring. Right now we lack clarity and whilst there are many more important matters such as freedom of movement, trade deals and backstops etc., Erasmus+ is a vital part of our offering as HEIs and we need clarity and certainty soon. I’ve not made any reference to research here but clearly we are seeing an impact on potential collaborations going forward and even if we do see an outcome that gives keeps us within the Erasmus family damage has already been done, opportunities will have been lost.
For me, the way forward right now is about talking with our partners, reassuring them that we want to continue. The obvious challenge will be funding; exchanges as we have them now can’t survive on students self-funding. I have a couple of self-funded student exchanges in the USA and clearly not all students can afford to get involved in those types of experiences. Erasmus+ enables all students, regardless of their background, to gain from what is often life changing experiences abroad.
My main worry is losing partners and losing the fantastic experiences that students can gain from an exchange placement. Many students use ‘life changing’ to describe their experience; this is often both cultural and professional. We have seen incoming exchange students from the EU come to work in Aberdeen as qualified nurses. Most of our outgoing students have used their learning positively to gain posts on qualifying and employers value the breadth of insight that comes from experiences abroad. On both cultural and professional levels relationships are developed and sustained by students well into their professional careers.
From one exchange experience back in 2000 an Italian student returned as a qualified nurse on a study tour to Scotland in 2006, she subsequently went on to do her PhD, from which we published a paper together in 2016. We subsequently set up a new exchange agreement with her local university, this all from one Erasmus exchange nearly 20 years ago. The potential of Erasmus+ is unlimited and to lose this will rob our students and staff of the fantastic opportunities if we cannot secure long term agreements going forward.