Franco-British university links among strongest in Europe

1 in 4 Erasmus students coming to Britain is French whilst France is a top Erasmus destination for UK

British universities appear to have that certain je ne sais quoi for French students spending part of their degree abroad, according to EU data.

Of all European Erasmus+ students studying in Britain between Autumn 2016 and Summer 2019, approximately one in four was from France. French Erasmus+ students in the UK during that period comprised the second-largest proportion of all French Erasmus+ students spending time in Europe.

Data on British Erasmus+ students suggests that the cross-Channel attraction is mutual. Within the same timeframe, almost one in four British Erasmus+ students spent time in France, and British Erasmus+ students in France comprised the second-largest proportion of all British Erasmus+ students studying in Europe. The only exception was for the 2016-17 academic year, when this group constituted the largest proportion of British Erasmus+ students on the Continent.

Will this Franco-British academic alliance remain as robust post-Brexit? British universities will no longer participate in Erasmus+ from September 2021. The UK Government will not take part in the exchange scheme as a non-EU partner, like Turkey, Serbia, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and North Macedonia.

The UK Government will instead launch its own scheme, named after computer scientist Alan Turing. According to a UK government press release, the Turing scheme will make £100m funding available to British students seeking to study abroad and aims to extend opportunities to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As the UK reshapes its international links, the “Global Britain” focus of the Turing scheme will place considerable emphasis upon year-abroad opportunities in countries beyond Europe as well as those in EU member states.

Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter and the UK Government’s International Education Champion, has said that the scheme will enable Britain to “make real our commitment to Global Britain”.

With only ten of the globe’s top 75 universities being located in the EU, according to the Times Higher Education World Rankings 2021, the Turing scheme may open more students up to a broader range of international study opportunities.

The end of low-cost European study?

Euro-British academic exchanges will remain possible post-Brexit. But will European study be as appealing to UK students? 

The fact that British students who set their sights on Europe will now have to spend a significant proportion of any Turing grants on visas and health insurance calls the low-cost incentive of European study into question.

Furthermore, the Turing scheme budget is £30m smaller in comparison to the £130m the UK currently receives from Erasmus+, which may restrict exchange possibilities.

This is of particular concern for teachers of European modern languages at UK universities. 

Spending between three months and a year abroad is often a compulsory part of degree study for student linguists, who can normally use Erasmus+ funding to undertake either university study or a relevant internship. For those studying languages spoken in Europe such as French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or Czech, heading to an EU country can be an attractive option.

Dougal Campbell, who lectured in French at the University of Glasgow for over 27 years until last month, knows the Erasmus+ scheme to be very useful to language students. The University, which is one of the world’s oldest, currently receives the third-largest sum of UK Erasmus+ funding.

Mr Campbell said: “Without the Erasmus scheme, our students will not have the well-established options of studying at French or Belgian universities or have the funding to take up a placement in France”.

Mr Campbell, who is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, a title conferred by the French Republic only upon exceptional teachers and academics, added: “The scheme has opened doors, opened minds and increased opportunities. 

“We have seen students go on to a career in IT in France, for example, after an Erasmus-funded placement with a tech company. Students have gone on to work for translation agencies in France after Erasmus-funded study at French universities.”

Bad news for incoming students?

Exiting Erasmus+ has become a core part of the UK Government’s post-Brexit foreign policy, and may assist the Government in carrying out its mandate to reinforce British political sovereignty. Over the course of the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years, Britain received between 50 and 60 percent more European university students than the number of British students it sent to the Continent.

But despite the “Global Britain” focus of the Turing scheme, the UK’s own world-class academic institutions may soon cease to be as attractive to European exchange students. 

Under current plans, the replacement scheme will not include support for incoming students from abroad. Whilst international exchange programmes in other non-EU countries such as Switzerland support both incoming and outgoing students, collective academic security regarding tuition fees and mutually recognised course credits will disappear. 

This could be a major blow for Francophone students with whom studying in Britain proves particularly popular.

French students may be put off by more expensive British tuition fees from which they are exempt under Erasmus+. Whilst average annual British tuition fees amount to around £9,000, the equivalent at French public universities is €189 (£167). Tuition at one of France’s selective, private grandes écoles can be as much as €600 (£532), but this is far cheaper in comparison to British institutions.

European students may be able to obtain an EU International Credit Mobility grant to support study in non-EU countries. It is, however, difficult to envisage a situation whereby the EU were not to prioritise intra-EU exchanges.

For Mr Campbell, the possibility of restricted international student mobility is worrying for teachers of modern languages spoken in Europe. Classes may be less diverse if the number of French exchange students drops.

He said: “Native French one-year visiting exchange students are an invaluable presence in translation classes, especially if they are from different universities with different courses, different accents and from different social classes also. There is a variety of input regarding language use”.

British universities may manage to strike their own agreements with European universities. Reinstituting tuition-fees exemptions on a university-by-university basis would be one of way of maintaining the attractiveness of British institutions post-Brexit. Whether this would be possible with the additional financial pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic is, however, uncertain.

Supporters of Brexit have argued that leaving the EU provides an opportunity to recalibrate the UK’s international academic links by placing a “Global Britain” approach at the fore. But exactly whether the academic alliance currently enjoyed by British and French institutions will be as robust in ten years’ time remains to be seen.

Photo Gerd Eichmann, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Graph Template Flourish Studio.

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