No political decision sums up the entire Brexit process better than the UK’s decision to withdraw from the Erasmus program. For those in Brussels it was a startling move with many scratching their heads, while for those in Westminster it was the fulfillment of the referendum promise to regain control. For anyone who really understood why Britain decided to leave the EU in the first place, the decision is the perfect anecdote for the whole thing.
Many in Brussels today will no doubt still be confused about why Erasmus is leaving, especially given its place as the jewel in the EU’s crown when it comes to cross-continental cooperation. And there is no doubt that Erasmus, who celebrated his 30thth The 2017 anniversary is something the EU can be proud of. Leaving the UK, however, was about both the financial and the political aspects of the project.
For the UK, the Erasmus program has not aged well at all. What was once considered an ambitious project to bring together the best academic institutions in the world has instead resulted in an expensive program stuck in another era. From a UK perspective, this lack of ambition in the Erasmus program stems from the fact that it is only restricted to Europe (and Turkey), even though the vast majority of the world’s leading academic institutions are outside the continent.
According to the annual university rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds, one of the top 100 universities in the world, only 12 are within the European Union. While 18 are in the United Kingdom, 27 in the United States and 13 in the Commonwealth, the remaining 30 are spread across the rest of the world. The Time Higher Education Index shows similar results.
What other reason is there for the UK to continue to limit itself to fair European cooperation? The proposed Alan Turing program announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to create a new exchange program that is all that Erasmus should be. Rather than being limited to one geographic region, it offers students and academics the opportunity to collaborate with others around the world, from the United States to Israel to Japan. At the same time, the British taxpayer is saving money – after all, Britain has put more money into the program than it has gained from it.
Which leads to the second reason for withdrawing from Erasmus, finance. For the UK, Erasmus made little financial sense, especially given that UK student intake was, on average, much lower than the rest of the program.
Ultimately, the withdrawal from Erasmus is a microcosm of the reasons many Britons had to leave during the referendum. Rightly or wrongly, the EU has become ambitious, inward-looking and expensive for a large number of Britons. Instead of opening up to the rest of the world through free trade, it has become protectionist. And instead of offering value for money to its members, it has become a perceived drain on national resources.
The withdrawal from Erasmus captures the gist of the vacation voters’ concerns and shows that those who voted to leave the EU were by and large not nativists, protectionists, nationalists like Nigel Farage, but more flexible internationalists. People like Farage hold a minority view among Brexiters, especially in today’s UK government. In the past four years since the UK held its referendum to leave the European Union in Brussels, a special narrative has been fed about why people voted the way they did, what for those who put their ballots submit, is not recognizable.
Brexit was driven by an overall more liberal motive than what the media portrayed. It was about being a global player and not just a European one, it was about getting value for money and financial responsibility, and it was about having a far more ambitious approach to free trade than the EU’s . And although to some extent it was also about controlling immigration, the aim was not to end it, but to create a level playing field that enabled people from South Africa, Canada and Australia to enter on an equal footing with those from Poland, Romania and France.
The decision to leave Erasmus sums it all up. The new Turing program is not just for Europeans, but for everyone. It’ll be cheaper. And perhaps most importantly, it will be much more ambitious to bring together academic institutions from around the world. A step towards a more global UK.