Boris Johnson had guaranteed in January that the Erasmus program was not at risk at all—just one year before signing an epoch-making free trade agreement with the European Union which, in the name of national-sovereignism, also sacrificed the Erasmus program itself.
Erasmus was too expensive. In its place will be the self-sufficient Alan Turing program, from the eponymous English mathematician and posthumous war hero that we know from the acclaimed biopic, with a reduced cost of 100 million pounds, further subject to a future spending review. It should provide about 35,000 British students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, with grants to study at universities around the world on a temporary basis from September 2021.
The real reason for this step backwards will also be the high costs of Erasmus participation (which is also open to non-European countries): but as in any Brexit-related dispute, one must also follow the ideology. And Johnson has invariably wrapped the second-hand “gift” his government dropped under the Christmas tree of the students in rhetoric: they “will have the opportunity not just to go to European universities but to go to the best universities in the world. Because we want our young people to experience the immense intellectual stimulation of Europe but also of the whole world,” he said, in a furor of globalist marketing.
In the contemporary culture war, in which the nationalist right wing is taking on the role of champions of the poor against the supposed “cosmopolitan” left, Johnson was echoed by the inscrutable Minister of Education, Gavin Williamson (a figure who was carried over from the May government to the Johnson government), who immediately commented on how the program will mainly benefit students from “disadvantaged” backgrounds.
Like the deal as a whole, the cancellation of the beloved university exchange program—which features prominently in the recollections of middle-class former students from all over Europe, and thanks to which Italy, in particular, has become culturally urbanized—is having devastating repercussions on the unity of the Kingdom, with Scotland increasingly determined to turn its back after more than three centuries of being a part of the UK. Scottish students were particularly eager for Erasmus, as the only truly European ingredient in the complex, constructed and exceptionalist British identity diet. Just as their parents didn’t vote to ditch the EU in the Brexit referendum, they wouldn’t have ditched Erasmus for anything in the world. Nicola Sturgeon, who called the decision “cultural vandalism,” is reportedly intent on asking the central government for a waiver for Scottish students.
The Erasmus program came into existence in 1987. In its current incarnation of Erasmus+, launched in 2014, more than 200,000 students have benefited from it, 15,000 of them British.
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