My Lords, I too have added my name to Amendment 38. Last week, after the vote in the House of Commons to reject a similar amendment, I was semi-encouraged by the statement issued by the Department for Education:
“The Government is committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus+ programme if it is in our interests to do so.”
I hope I can offer some information and arguments today that will convince the Minister to go back and persuade the Government that it is indeed very much in our interests, and that they should think again and put their commitment to Erasmus+ in the Bill. As we have heard, the Prime Minister said only yesterday that there was no threat to Erasmus. If that is a genuine commitment, fantastic—there can be no reason why that cannot be irrefutably placed in the Bill. Otherwise, all that we actually know we can be sure of is that Erasmus is secure only until the end of 2020.
I have spoken several times before in your Lordships’ House on the importance of Erasmus in the context of the teaching and learning of modern foreign languages, but that is neither the whole picture nor the whole reason for needing to stick with the programme. It is also in the far broader interests of the UK, its economic resilience, its competitiveness and the employability of young people—and I do not just mean relatively privileged students. I understand from a press report in last Saturday’s Times that one of the Government’s reservations is that Erasmus is viewed as mainly benefiting middle-class students and that the money might be much better directed towards the schools budget. If accurate, this view shows a misunderstanding of the breadth, purpose and benefits of the Erasmus programme. I hope I can now shed some light on this, to assist the Government in looking again and changing their mind out of sheer self-interest.
Let me recap very quickly on the value of Erasmus as far as language skills are concerned, then put that into a broader context. Despite some recent improvement in GCSE take-up, the UK currently faces a serious crisis of lack of language skills, which costs our economy an estimated 3.5% of GDP every year. Employers are not happy with the foreign language skills of school leavers and graduates and have been relying increasingly on overseas recruitment to meet their needs. Yet 100,000 fewer GCSE language exams were taken in 2015 compared to a decade earlier and, since 2000, more than 50 of our universities have scrapped some or all of their modern language degree courses. Erasmus+ plays a crucial role in the supply chain of MFL teachers in our schools, where we are already looking at a critical shortage unless levels of recruitment from the EU can be sustained after we leave.
All this is happening against a background in which the UK will be seeking to redefine its place in the world, establish leadership in international relations, security and soft power, and negotiate many new free trade agreements. It is a world, contrary to the popular but completely mistaken myth, in which 75% of the global population does not speak English, and young people need languages more than ever to compete in a culturally agile, mobile and interconnected jobs market. The Government are rightly committed to retaining a close relationship on all fronts with our European neighbours after we leave the EU, and so should be aware that English will almost certainly have a declining influence as an EU language, as native English speakers shrink from 13% of member state population to a mere 1%.
Another very telling statistic is that young people who have spent a year abroad with the Erasmus programme are 23% less likely to be unemployed than those who have not. This goes for students of all disciplines, not just linguists. Employers have repeatedly said how much they value candidates who have taken a year abroad to not just acquire language skills but develop an international and cross-cultural mindset. One study reported that employers rated these skills even more highly than expertise in STEM subjects.
It is also important to correct the misunderstanding that the scope of Erasmus+ is restricted to university students: as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned, it also covers schools, including primary schools, adult education, the youth sector and vocational training for apprentices and associated staff. Since 2014, the vocational provision has funded around 24,000 UK apprentices, other young learners and staff to participate in accredited mobility placements.
Erasmus+ gives opportunities to young people to work together and make a difference on issues that matter in their daily lives. Activities include running a project in their own community, meetings with decision-makers and volunteering abroad. Benefits include improved access to employment, as well as new experience and skills as active citizens. Youth workers benefit from job attachments, training and other professional development. Erasmus+ has an important role in supporting diversity and inclusion and is especially relevant to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people, including those in care, those with disabilities, refugees and migrants.
I respectfully ask Her Majesty’s Government to consider very carefully the timing of decisions on Erasmus+. To come out of the programme now, or even just cast doubt over our future participation by default, would be unnecessarily damaging to our national interests, for two key reasons: first, because the current uncertainty is one of the reasons given for the further drop we have seen in the past year of applications to study languages at university. The year abroad, supported by Erasmus, is the jewel in the crown of an MFL degree, and without it more universities will be under pressure to cut courses, which will further threaten the supply chain of language teachers. If we do not guarantee our full commitment to Erasmus now, this uncertainty will be compounded and very hard to turn around and recover from.
Secondly, the European Commission is about to double the budget for Erasmus+ to €30 billion for the next funding period from 2021-27, with €25.9 billion for education and training, €3.1 billion for youth provision and €550 million for sport. This will support three times as many people as the current budget. Why would we want to turn our back on our share of all that? What bad timing indeed if we were to cease being full, continuous members of the programme right now, just as we could have access to this expansion, which could help Her Majesty’s Government fulfil some of their core objectives on social mobility, social justice, regional inequalities and global competitiveness.
Therefore, I implore the Minister and through him the Government to please think again about cutting our ties with Erasmus+, especially right now when so much else is still up for negotiation over the next year. Let us at least hold on to what we know we already have access to, which provides excellent value for money and sends an important message to our young people that we have their future opportunities front of mind. Other non-EU countries which subscribe as full participants in Erasmus+ are Iceland, Liechtenstein, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia and Turkey. I hope the UK will also be one of these after the end of 2020. I honestly believe that this would be the most straightforward, non-controversial, popular tweak to this Bill that the Government could adopt, whether in its current wording or perhaps in the Government’s own name on Report. As long as such an amendment provided for a solid commitment to continued membership of Erasmus+ and eliminated uncertainty, with absolute clarity on the future, I am sure it would be welcomed and appreciated across all sections of society.