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Student protest

Student protest, Photo: Manfred Werner / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, linked at bottom of article

Students will need to continue the fight for education as a right, argues Lucy Nichols

It is no secret that the government does not care about students. The last decade of Conservative rule have perfectly demonstrated the Tory attitude towards higher education; it should be reserved for the elite few able to afford it, and to hell with the rest.

The government’s contempt for students has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The Cabinet gladly pushed students back into unsafe university halls, and watched as tens of thousands of vulnerable young people caught the virus in September and October – later on threatening not to allow students home for Christmas on the basis that they were to blame for this outbreak.

In some sort of cruel double whammy, the government’s ramshackle Brexit deal has dealt another blow to many students by pulling Britain out of the Europe-wide Erasmus scheme.

The Erasmus programme was set up in 1987, and essentially allows students in EU member states to study in other countries at a low cost, and with an EU grant. It is largely aimed at language students, and viewed as a chance for European students to study their target language in the country where it is spoken.

It’s been unclear whether Britain would be able to stay a part of Erasmus since the referendum in 2016, and the fate of students wishing to study around Europe has been on unstable ground since we voted to leave the European Union.

While the EU is by no means something to be venerated, the loss of Erasmus is hugely disappointing. The scheme allowed young people a one-off chance to travel and study abroad for more or less the same cost as studying in the UK. For obvious reasons, this benefitted working class students, for whom it would otherwise be very difficult to fund a year abroad.

It is a shame to see the British government so readily disregarding something as important as language exchange, and symbolic that the Erasmus scheme is to be replaced with a similar programme named after Alan Turing, the Englishman responsible for an allied victory in the Second World War. A comrade pointed out that they were surprised it won’t be named after Churchill.

There are perhaps points to be made about British exceptionalism here. It’s a running joke that British people are reluctant to learn other languages on the basis that we expect everyone to speak English – 62% the country speak just the one language, the highest in Europe.

The government’s expectation that the rest of Europe will pander to the new Turing programme is then reminiscent of a stereotypical Brit abroad who expects everyone in a foreign country to speak perfect English.

It is working class students who will be at the biggest disadvantage from the scrapping of Erasmus, though this point appears to have been forgotten by many.

Erasmus appears to now be caught in the middle of a debate over the general benefits of staying in the EU versus leaving it; the proponents of each side largely unconcerned with the wellbeing of the students affected by this particular aspect of the deal.

Comparisons are being made with the 2010 decisions to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which gave students from low-income households a weekly allowance, and meant that thousands of young people were able to afford University where they may not have previously.

While the EMA certainly managed to reach more students, and the loss of this weekly allowance has likely affected far more students than the loss of Erasmus, it is not necessary to play the two off against each other.

The scrapping of Erasmus and the EMA both reflect an uncaring government’s attitude towards less well-off students, and Conservative attitudes towards education as a whole (that it is a privilege rather than a right).

It is clear that the government will continue to find ways to make conditions for students worse, and Erasmus is just the latest (if not a relatively minor) example of this.

As January closes in, students will begin to return to their university halls. New battles are likely to emerge, so it is crucial that students continue to fight the government wherever possible.

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