“Cultural vandalism”: British Erasmus mourn the end of the program that changed their lives

When the clock struck midnight in Brussels on December 31, the UK’s Brexit transition period to leave the EU ended and with it the country’s membership of the decades-old Erasmus program.

Up to three million people have gone through the program since it began in 1987, which offers university students from the European Union the opportunity to study abroad.

The show also features some famous alumni, including former High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini, a number of European politicians, and Tom Bird, former executive producer of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London.

Currently Executive Director of the York Theater Royal, Bird told Euronews that his career milestones “are inspired by the spirit of adventure that Erasmus gave me.”

He attributes this to the challenge of showing up in a new city where he has never been friendless before and “trying to succeed.”

“Taking the UK out of the Erasmus program feels like an act of educational vandalism and it also feels like an act of cultural vandalism,” he said.

Bird says that without the plan he would not have been able to finance his year of study in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2004 while pursuing a BA at the University of Edinburgh, as it provided him with a living grant that was a “massive help”.

“There are thousands of people like me for whom this really opened the world and my career became more international,” he added.

The British government has said that the Turing program, with which it wants to replace Erasmus and named after the famous English mathematician and codebreaker from World War II, will offer wider access to students who will be able to study at universities in the whole world, not just Europe, although details have yet to be released.

Bird says there are potential benefits to a new program, such as the fact that it could be more global.

He hopes that it receives good publicity and that its benefits are communicated to students, something that, in his opinion, the UK Government and the EU have not done with the Erasmus program.

“It helped me get away from thinking narrowly and insularly about the world.”

But John Cotter does not see the new program as sufficient to justify the withdrawal of Erasmus: “From what I have read, the program proposed by Turing will not be a suitable replacement for Erasmus,” he told Euronews.

He is now Professor of Law at Keele University, studied in Constance, Germany, from 2002/03 while studying Law and German in Cork, Ireland.

British Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has said that the country’s decision not to opt for Erasmus after Brexit comes down to the taxpayer’s benefit for their money, adding that the new plan would serve students from less privileged backgrounds “who were often those who did not benefit from plans like Erasmus “.

“The additional hundreds of millions of pounds it would have cost us will be better spent to ensure that disadvantaged children … get a better education,” he added.

But Cotter refutes this claim by saying that he did not come from a wealthy family situation and that the show “has transformed the lives of many people from all backgrounds, including my own.”

On a professional level, he said his stay in Germany opened his eyes to differences in things like infrastructure between countries and, professionally, “it really started my interest in EU law, which is what I ended up specializing in.”

“Learning German law made me see EU law and Irish law in a new light,” he added.

It turned out to be “one of the most momentous decisions of my life.”

The Erasmus program has also helped Europeans come to the UK to study, and some have built a life or a career there.

After leaving school in Germany at age 16 for an apprenticeship as a technician, Manfred Suddendorf returned to higher education at age 20 at the University of Aachen and was at Coventry University for a year with the Erasmus program.

“In this year, I fell in love with the UK and its people. My English improved considerably and I felt it was too early to go.”

Suddendorf stayed in the UK and completed a PhD, something he says he would never have done without his experience in Coventry, and worked for several years in the field of Biomedical Engineering.

Some critics have pointed to the high cost of the program – the UK contributed around € 1.8 billion to the Erasmus + program between 2014 and 2020 and recovered around € 1 billion, according to the Department for Education.

A cost that Gove said was “too great” to warrant the terms the UK was offered in the Brexit deal.

The Department for Education has said that more than £ 100 million (€ 112 million) will go to the Turing program to provide funding to some 35,000 students for internships, targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I think it is a mistake to think that Erasmus is a taxpayer-funded program, although I am not saying that this does not happen,” Suddendorf said.

“For me it was very hard work, but above all a fantastic opportunity that transformed my life.”

Although cost and accessibility issues have dealt the final blow to the Erasmus program in the UK, there is no doubt that it has changed the lives of many British and European students alike.

A new generation of young Britons is now waiting for more details from the British Government on what the Turing program can offer them.