Brexit uncertainty sparks unease among Erasmus students planning to study in UK

If Great Britain crashes out of the European Union, it is unclear whether Spanish students will receive the financial support they should be due under the popular program

Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.TOLGA AKMEN (AFP)

The future of the Erasmus student exchange program in the United Kingdom has been thrown into doubt by the possibility that Britain will leave the European Union – a process popularly known as “Brexit” – without a deal.

The Erasmus program was created more than 30 years ago by the European Union as a way to bring the continent together through university research and education. The EU sets aside €16.38 billion of its budget to fund the program but there is concern Spanish students who want to study in the UK will not receive financial support if there is a so-called hard Brexit, whereby the UK crashes out of the 28-country bloc without a deal.

There is a lot of uncertainty because of Brexit. My advice is look for other countries

Norwegian Education Minister Iselin Nybø

University students currently enrolled will not be affected but those studying in the 2019-2020 period could lose their scholarships if the British parliament does not ratify a Withdrawal Agreement before March 29.

The Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May has secured establishes a transitory period that would allow the scholarships to be extended until 2021. But this means nothing unless it is signed off. The European Commission agreed at the end of January to continue financing the scholarships of students who began their studies before the Brexit deadline but what will happen in the next university year remains to be seen.

In Spain, the uncertainty is making many universities and students nervous. “The International Relations Office of my universit called me on Monday and recommended I choose another destination because they couldn’t guarantee that I would receive a scholarship if I go to the United Kingdom,” says a student from Santiago de Compostela University who had been given a spot to study in Leicester. The student in question was going to receive €2,100 for the entire year. The university, located in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region, has asked 40 Erasmus students to consider universities in Poland, the Netherlands and Norway, to give up their scholarship or to wait and see what happens, albeit in the knowledge that they may be left without financial aid.

We aren’t worried. We believe there will be a solution

Vice chancellor of the University of Salamanca Efrem Yildiz

Spanish students receive between €200 and €350 a month, depending on the country they are studying in. Some regions and universities in Spain provide a larger amount.

Amid the confusion, the Spanish government has called for calm. “It seems hasty to take measures. We have to wait,” says José Manuel Pingarrón, the secretary general of universities. “Brussels subsidizes between 80% and 90% of the scholarship funds and the rest is covered by Spain. In the case that there is no [Brexit] deal, perhaps whoever is in government here could compensate for the European subsidy.”

In Norway, which is not part of the EU but takes part in the Erasmus program, Education Minister Iselin Nybø is less optimistic. “There is a lot of uncertainty because of Brexit. My advice is to look for other countries and not Great Britain,” she says.

Response of Spanish universities

Universities across Spain have responded differently to the threat posed by a no-deal Brexit to the Erasmus program.

The University of Vigo in Galicia has not yet opened up positions for the Erasmus program “but is talking to centers so that students don’t choose the United Kingdom, given that their financial aid cannot be guaranteed, and only their stay is recognized,” the press department explained.

The University of Málaga, in the south of Spain, has opened 94 spots to study in the UK and has decided not to warn students about the risk given “there is no definitive response to the situation,” EL PAÍS journalist Nacho Sánchez reports.

The Autonomous University of Barcelona and the University of the Basque Country are also not planning on taking any steps. “No one benefits from the disappearance of Erasmus,” explains Marius Martínez, vice chancellor of the Barcelona institution. “Why would the United Kingdom want to remain outside one of the largest frameworks for research?”

Spanish students receive between €200 and €350 a month, depending on the country they are studying in

The Catalan University Council, which represents 12 universities in Catalonia, intends to study the situation before taking any measures. In the Valencia region, no changes are planned but one university noted that there had been a fall in interest in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, universities in Huelva and Alicante are discussing new agreements with their counterparts in the UK.

The Complutense University in Madrid has opened scholarships for another year and the University of Salamanca, a favorite destination for Erasmus students, plans on receiving 100 British students and sending 80. “We aren’t worried. We believe there will be a solution,” says vice chancellor Efrem Yildiz.

Dorothy Kelly, the vice rector of internationalization of the Spanish Chancellors Conference (CRUE), a not-for-profit organization that represents 76 Spanish universities, said that “in the case of no deal, universities could maintain exchange agreements with British universities outside of Erasmus, with different funding situations [...] as occurs under bilateral agreements with other countries.” Kelly added that “academic recognition in these cases is the responsibility of each university, as is the reciprocal exemption of fees.” CRUE has called a meeting on March 14 to discuss the situation.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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