NEWS

Lewis Macdonald - Erasmus+ : Speech in the Scottish Parliament



16 May 2018

I was a member of the committee last year, and I was among those who visited the Jack Kane centre in Craigmillar in August.

As Joan McAlpine said, the young people we met there told us how Erasmus+ had provided them with the opportunity to travel and meet people of the same age in other countries.

Several of those young people had not previously had an opportunity to travel much beyond their community.

The 35 students and staff of the University of Aberdeen who wrote to me in March identified similar benefits, with a focus on formal education rather than social engagement.

They talked about removing barriers and the opportunity to study and live in different countries.

For both groups of young people, maintaining such access for those who come after them was crucial.

The students said that it would be unfair for those who reaped the rewards of participating in Erasmus+ to deny that opportunity to future generations.

That is the challenge that we now face.

For a generation and more, we have benefited from the free movement of students, teachers and groups of young people between Britain and ever wider areas of continental Europe.

As things stand, there is no guarantee that future generations will be able to enjoy such freedom beyond 2020.

The question of how to protect those benefits is of great importance, and the committee’s report is a useful contribution to finding the right answer.

Yesterday’s Brexit debate was an argument about reserved and devolved responsibilities.

Today’s debate is about whether we should seek to agree, after Brexit, to pool some of our resources with the European Union in order to maintain cross-border initiatives to our mutual advantage.

If we agree that that should be done, the question is, how?

It is important to recognise the scale of those cross-border links.

From the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University alone, more than 600 students and nearly 100 staff have gone abroad under the Erasmus+ programme in the academic years 2014-15 and 2015-16, and many students and teachers have come to Aberdeen and to Scotland from other countries.

That is good for them and good for us.

I will give a single example of what Erasmus+ actually means.

Last weekend, I met a young woman at a fundraising dinner in Aberdeen that was hosted by the region’s enterprising community of Syrian former refugees.

A postgraduate student, she is a citizen of an EU Baltic country who has used Erasmus+ to study in France and Spain and is now doing a master’s degree in Scotland.

She also hopes to work with Syrians in Aberdeen to learn from the experience and to share her language skills.

She has reached an academic standard in French and Spanish, is fluent in English and has grown up speaking both Russian and Estonian.

She is a model European and global citizen of the next generation.

We surely want young Scots to match that breadth and depth.

A failure to join the successor scheme to Erasmus+ would put that at risk.

In addition, the story makes the point that, while Erasmus+ benefits Scots who go abroad, it also benefits Scotland through those people who come from other countries to work and study here.

Of course, promoting an outward-looking culture among our young people is not only about access to European programmes of educational and cultural exchange.

Figures just published show that the number of young Scots who are achieving qualifications in modern languages—the very area that I have just described—has fallen by almost half in the past 10 years.

That is clearly very serious indeed, and it is an urgent issue for the Scottish ministers and the Parliament to address.

Very few young people in Scotland or anywhere else voted in favour of Brexit, as Oliver Mundell did, because they did not want to reduce their ability to travel, work or study abroad.

Loss of access to European exchanges will certainly count as an unintended consequence of the vote two years ago.

Stuart McMillan:

I am sure that Lewis Macdonald would agree with me that encouraging people to take the time to go and study abroad has been an issue not just over the past decade, but for quite some time. As was mentioned earlier, some people can, at times, unfortunately be quite insular regarding their own communities.

Lewis Macdonald:

Absolutely.

As Stuart McMillan has said, and as he knows from experience, it is a generational issue.

The generation that members of this Parliament typically represent has had the benefit of those opportunities over the past 40-something years.

The critical point now is how we secure those benefits for the next generation.

UK ministers have guaranteed that the commitments that were made under Erasmus+ will be honoured for the full period of the current programme to the end of 2020, which is welcome.

However, they must now look beyond 2020 and make commitments of their own to maintain engagement in whatever successor programme the EU chooses to put in place.

Labour’s priority would be to take forward membership of and involvement in such programmes, and the CTEER Committee essentially calls on Conservative ministers to do the same.

Oliver Mundell cited what Theresa May said at Prime Minister’s questions as an expression of willingness.

It is an important starting point, but it remains a long way short of concluding an agreement with the European partners.

I welcome the support from Rachael Hamilton and Jackson Carlaw for the committee’s report.

However, while many members on the Conservative side of the chamber recognise and support the principle of seeking to be part of a successor scheme, the issue is how much it matters to Government ministers when it is weighed in the balance against economic interests and backward-looking notions of national sovereignty.

As has been said, there are plenty of precedents for participation in the Erasmus+ scheme; it is not confined to member states of the European Union.

The minister cited countries in the European Free Trade Association and the EEA that are Erasmus+ programme members, and Oliver Mundell cited Turkey, which is not a member of EFTA or the EEA but is nonetheless a programme member.

Countries outwith the European Union and the European Economic Area have negotiated access to those programmes on a bilateral basis.

They have given the question of access to the scheme sufficient priority to be weighed in the balance against other things, and that is the fundamental challenge for us.

It is clear that participation will have to be paid for, in addition to the financial contributions that have already been identified, and there will have to be a new agreement on freedom of movement for those who are involved.

Those are big asks, but they are worth seeking answers to because of the programme’s significance for future generations of young people and in order to maintain access in the future.






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