As Britain heads for its still unknown Brexit destination, concern about the European Union programme Erasmus+ is growing. Erasmus, created in 1987 to fund mobility and exchange across Europe for higher education students and staff, is reputedly among Europeans’ favourite EU programmes.

The European Commission proposal for the next multi-annual funding programme (2021-27), now under discussion, would more than double its budget to €30 billion (US$34 billion) and provide opportunities for 12 million people, up by two thirds on the current programme. This was overwhelmingly supported by the European Parliament.

United Kingdom universities’ concerns are apparent in their recent testimony to a House of Lords committee. Norway and Spain, who send many students to the UK, are advising their Erasmus students to look elsewhere.

Yet the government seems scarcely concerned about the current iteration of Erasmus, known as Erasmus+, and which now includes the huge eTwinning network of schools, Jean Monnet activities and Youth in Action.


British Council figures show that more than 40,000 people from the UK went abroad under Erasmus+ during 2015-16 to study, train, volunteer or gain professional experience, while 13,800 European staff and nearly 50,000 European students trained in the UK, which was the third most popular destination for students.

Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s speeches on Brexit have consistently downplayed the importance of Erasmus – unlike her concern for science, research and innovation, and saving what can be saved from the EU’s Horizon programme. It is EU institutions that have made contingency arrangements for students or academics stranded the day after a no deal.

The Political Declaration has some warm words on a future for education in this relationship, referring to shared values, dialogue, sharing best practice and “conditions for entry and stay for purposes such as research, study, training and youth exchanges”. But these are aspirational at best.

The higher education spokesperson, Viscount Younger, has reflected the ambiguity: “In all scenarios the UK will remain fully open to scientists, researchers and students from across the EU and beyond… The government has committed to back UK researchers and innovators by supporting measures in collaborative research … [And] we are considering developing a domestic alternative to Erasmus +.”

Good Lords

Younger’s response was precisely what the Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee did not want to hear. It had examined six possible policy options for a future relationship, concluding: “We strongly believe – and it was the unanimous view of our witnesses – that it is in the UK and the EU’s mutual interest to preserve current close levels of cooperation on research and innovation and educational mobility, and that the UK should participate fully in the Erasmus and Horizon Europe programmes as an associated third country…

“If the government is not willing or able to secure association to these programmes, alternative UK funding schemes would be needed. However, it would be a formidable challenge to try to replicate at a national level the substantial benefits of the EU’s programmes for research and innovation and international mobility….”

Even with comparative financial investment, it will be impossible to replicate aspects of Erasmus which are key to facilitating international exchanges: the programme’s strong brand, trusted reputation, common rulebook and framework for partnership agreements and its established network of potential partners.

The Lords committee had a further warning about trying to go it alone: “We are struck by the stark warning that mobility opportunities for people in vocational education and training would ‘stop in their tracks’ without Erasmus funding, and we are particularly concerned that losing access to the programme would disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities. The time and resources required to establish and maintain exchange partnerships without the support of Erasmus could also be a prohibitive burden for many smaller organisations.”

The annual reports of the Erasmus+ programme reveal the challenge of creating an Erasmus-Lite.

They also show that though delivery of the programme is national, much of the common servicing is done centrally, largely through the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, or EACEA.

Enterprising individuals and institutions will strike out on their own. A Midlands effort spearheaded by the Centre for Brexit Studies in Birmingham is building on the regional and corporate collaborations built up over the decades through EU programmes to help them. But it will not be Erasmus.

Lessons from the past

If the case for a national Erasmus-Lite programme is taken seriously, it can take some lessons from the journey that ideas take, starting in what the political scientist John Kingdon called ‘the policy soup’ – the stage where ideas are batted around over coffee or in editorials – to becoming substantive policy.

The Kingdon model indicated that there were likely to be two routes and one essential condition for this policy process to take place. Route A is when a political leader decides that their policy must be implemented, and so creates the conditions in which the idea can be worked on by officials. Route B is when the skilled bureaucrat or other policy actor has an idea to which they are passionately committed, and lies in wait for the right political wind to blow.

I was curious to trace the process of how the original Erasmus decision came to be made. Looking for what sparked EU interest in higher education, I came across people who were active in the 1950s – some retired but contactable – and others long since dead, but a living presence in the archives. Here are three examples of policy-making situations that those constructing Erasmus-Lite would be faced with. All demand a visible political commitment.

When an idea is good, but not good enough

You are a German minister caught up in the post-war fervour of how to strengthen European integration, and you advise the most senior figures in the German Federal Republic. You passionately believe that German universities need to be brought back into the international arena after the humiliations of German defeat in 1945 and you brood on a project to create a university beacon for Europe, a model to inspire a weakened sector.

Your friend and colleague is the German lead in the discussions taking place at Messina in 1955 on moving on from the European Coal and Steel Community to a European Economic Community or EEC. He shares your idea.

He introduces the idea that the EEC should create a model university for Europe, the European University. It will be a mix of a residential Oxbridge-style college educating a multinational European elite in common values and norms, and a high-powered scientific institution specialising in industrial economics.

His colleagues from the five European Coal and Steel Community states who are leading for their countries on the potential treaty are baffled but defer to their German colleague. He was Walter Hallstein, then chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s envoy and later the first president of the EEC Commission.

So the proposal for the European University stayed on the agenda up to treaty signing time, with just one twist. Late in the day, it had been decided to create a European Atomic Energy Community or EAEC to deal with nuclear power for civil purposes. The drafting team had pasted the idea into the EAEC treaty because it looked a bit like the university institute for nuclear research that the French were pushing, leaving it to be dealt with when the Treaty of Rome EAEC Treaty was implemented.

The day of reckoning was not exactly a glorious occasion. Hallstein proclaimed at one point: “The university is the finest creation of the European mind.” But the rhetoric could not withstand the reality. When the treaty item on the new university institution came onto their agenda, the commissioners had no policy back-up. They turned to reminiscing about their own university days.

When a policy entrepreneur or two is needed

By 1969, French policy-makers’ thinking about universities had undergone a revolution. Shaken by the student movement of May 1968, they now wanted effective and European Community-wide cooperation on higher education. For them, that meant an intergovernmental process using Commission resources, and getting around the fact that vocational training had a place in the EEC Treaty but education did not.

The French and Italians agreed that each would support the other’s pet projects. The Italians had stuck to the European University agenda – by this time transformed into the idea for a European University Institute in Florence. France’s idea came to fruition in a ministerial resolution of 1971 for cooperation on ‘education as such’.

But it was only in 1976, in an enlarged EEC and with a new Commission, that EEC support became a reality. This time it was Hywel Ceri Jones, a resourceful bureaucrat in the new, low status education division within the Directorate General for Research. He won backing from education ministers and the then Parliamentary Assembly to resource an action programme on education and training, by bundling it together with vocational training pilot schemes allowable under the Treaty.

This was an era of political goodwill in the EEC, and the action programme took off. It launched academic student exchange contracts – which were initially voluntary, to avoid the barriers to mobility of different national requirements for university admission.

When the high ground matters

In 1985 a new commissioner (Peter Sutherland, later of GATT and the World Trade Organization, and of Goldman Sachs) wanted to make his mark with new legislation in the minor, though challenging portfolio of education and training. He saw the policy potential in the nine-year-old student exchange scheme.

The draft Erasmus plan had the blessing of then European Commission president Jacques Delors. But in 1986 the junior education minister representing the UK objected to the scheme on the instructions of Margaret Thatcher. French president François Mitterrand and the Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald, however, pushed it through.


Any national programme to replace Erasmus+ faces an enormous challenge in matching the enhanced employment opportunities, better language skills and stimulus to quality learning and teaching it already offers.

It must create a viable national framework which offers an experience that is inherently European and which, as the Erasmus motto has it, “enriches lives and open minds”. It is easy to destruct and very difficult to reconstruct.

Dr Anne Corbett is a senior associate of LSE Consulting and researcher and commentator of European higher education policy and Brexit higher education matters. The historical evidence is drawn from her book Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, institutions and policy entrepreneurship in European Union higher education policy, 1995-2005 (Palgrave, 2005). This post represents the views of the author and not those of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). It was first published on the LSE blog here.