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A Bitter-sweet Anniversary: Will Brexit End Access To ERASMUS For British Students?

09/05/2017 11:26 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 11:26 BST
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Many young people have expressed their frustrations about the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The European Union offers opportunities which are now at risk, they argue. As far as their studies go, facts support that concern. ERASMUS launched in Europe in 1987 offering study mobility. EU analysis of those 30 years of experience with ERASMUS exchanges shows the noticeable impact such mobility has had on participants' employment. Moreover, a survey just published by the collective Universities UK, shows similar results for British students. In my opinion, it is of significant national interest for the ERASMUS scheme to survive the UK's resurgent nationalism.

A delayed appeal

Students at British universities have not always queued up to take advantage of the so-called ERASMUS scheme, which facilitates student exchanges between various countries. In the initial decades of this programme, British students were reluctant to take advantage of the chance to do part of their study in another country, contrary to most other European countries where the mobility opportunities by and large appealed to growing numbers of students. In the past 30 years, over 2 million young people in higher education and a further 650,000 in vocational programmes have taken part.

At last, times have changed in the UK, too; in the past decade, the number of British students doing an ERASMUS exchange have increased by 50%. This growing appeal is well deserved because the benefits of going - quite literally - that extra mile can now be illustrated with hard evidence.

Stand out from the competition

Analysing data of Europe-wide student mobility over the last 30 years shows that the participants of the ERASMUS programmes received a significant career boost. It made them more employable, helped them in career progression and got them higher earnings. Recent research on the 2013/14 student cohort in the UK reconfirmed the European conclusions. The Universities UK survey shows that when checking up on students six months after graduation, the mobile students not only found a job faster, but they actually earned approximately 5% more than their non-mobile fellow graduates.

The correlation between mobility and study results is unsurprising. Those who were mobile were also likely to obtain more first and upper second class degrees. Of course, that partly explains the higher employability, but when drawing a comparison between, say, those who travelled and earned a first class degree and those who stayed at home and achieved the same grade, the number of those who had studied abroad still scored higher when it came to graduate employment.

The most remarkable impact is on how those students from a disadvantaged background or those from ethnic minority groups benefited even more from taking part in mobility schemes. Graduates from a lower socio-economic background earned over 6% more than the similar, non-mobile group. Those graduates who identified themselves as 'black' and went abroad were 70% less likely to be unemployed after six months.

Recognising valuable life skills

Many more statistics emerge from the UUK report and the EU survey, all leading to the same conclusion overall: students do a study period abroad because it pays off.

One of the reasons behind this ERASMUS effect on careers is that education is not purely about passing exams and obtaining a diploma. It is equally about development as a person, and few things have so much impact on personal development as 'surviving' a study period abroad. Employers value the impact that this is likely to have on young people: gaining a better insight in their strengths, weaknesses and the growth in self-confidence typically resulting from this.

Of course, employers also understand the importance of self-selection. Students who decide to explore the world abroad as part of their study probably have 'guts'. They could have stayed in the comfort zone of home and campus, but instead accepted the challenge of doing a significant part of their studies in an unknown environment. Those who did so felt that they had embarked on an exciting adventure; this is an attitude particularly welcome in business. They also, most probably, enhanced their soft skills, in particular, their multicultural sensitivity. Today, this asset is imperative to flourish in a future leadership role. So, it comes as no surprise that these ERAMUS students are more attractive to employers, gain higher salaries, and make faster career progress.

The domestic side

What is good for individual students is equally as good for our economy. National prosperity is directly linked to our ability to do business across borders. Brexit or no Brexit, intra-European business shall remain of critical importance. EU countries will undoubtedly continue to be our most important and closest business partners, with or without major border hurdles. It is those students who have ventured abroad that are especially essential in retaining the momentum of economic growth. The ERASMUS scheme is tailor-made for them.

Politically, we experience a strong backlash against globalisation. There is a risk growing nostalgic nationalism will feed protectionism. This makes it more important than ever to understand that not just the next generation of students, but also our future economy, needs international mobility. We really should be talking about how we can expand international study opportunities for British students, rather than about how ERASMUS might or might not survive Brexit.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector of London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS).