A replacement for the Erasmus study exchange scheme will begin next September, the government says, amid an outcry over the “short-sighted and mean-spirited” decision to pull out of it.
Downing Street is blaming the annual cost of Erasmus, put at “hundreds of millions of pounds”, because more students come to the UK to study than travel in the opposite direction.
Around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools would go on placements and exchanges overseas, from September 2021 – to “countries across the world”.
“We now have the chance to expand opportunities to study abroad and see more students from all backgrounds benefit from the experience,” claimed Gavin Williamson, the education secretary.
But critics immediately questioned whether 35,000 students could really take part in a scheme costing only £100m – working out at only £2,850 each.
At present, around 17,000 UK youngsters participate each year, receiving grants much higher than that for accommodation and living costs in their host country.
Peter Ricketts, the former head of the Foreign Office and now a crossbench peer, warned a “UK alternative from a standing start will not be a full substitute”.
It was only the framework of an EU-wide scheme that cut costs and allowed “smaller colleges and youth groups” to take part.
“The decision not to participate in Erasmus is short-sighted and mean-spirited,” Lord Ricketts said.
“The programme transformed the life chances of thousands of Brits, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those too young to vote in the referendum will be the ones to suffer.”
Quizzed in the Commons last January, the prime minister promised MPs: “There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme and we will continue to participate in it.”
But the promise was dumped after the UK rejected the EU’s requirement to join the programme for seven years, with the fee calculated based on national income.
The replacement scheme makes no mention of funding students to come to the UK, depriving British universities of a significant source of income.
It would “blow a hole” in the UK’s economy worth £243m a year, a group of education and business leaders calculated earlier this year.
But Mr Williamson added: “We have designed a truly international scheme which is focused on our priorities, delivers real value for money and forms an important part of our promise to level up the United Kingdom.
“These opportunities will benefit both our students and our employers, as well as strengthening our ties with partners across the world.”
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