Monolingual sovereignty? Counting the multiple costs of leaving Erasmus+

As the Brexit transition period nears it end, it seems likely that Britain will now forfeit access to the Erasmus+ scheme. This comes as no real surprise, at least to those of us involved in student mobility in UK Higher Education, however much we lament it. Losing access may seem just one of the smaller costs of Britain’s exit from the EU and one that only affects a small percentage of the population, predominantly the young. Yet, things are not simply as they seem, rather, the loss of access to the Erasmus+ scheme will have longer, more far-reaching costs and consequences beyond the individuals it affects directly. Think of it this way, given that the level of linguistic proficiency in the UK at present is recognised as being problematic and putting the UK at a disadvantage, how much worse will that become without access to the very means that enable linguistic proficiency to develop? There may be those who are comfortable with monolingualism but a dependence on English and a belief that English is sufficient is not only misguided but it also masks the extent to which languages and the ability to communicate across linguistic barriers affects us all. If you cannot communicate in another language you are dependent on other people being able to communicate to you. If we think back to those claims of ‘sovereignty’ the Leave campaign and subsequent governments have laid claim to – without, I note, ever really defining what sovereign means or whether such a notion is desirable- then I have to ask, how can there be sovereignty when there is a dependence on others for communication?

The Erasmus scheme was initiated in 1987 as a student exchange programme, later renamed Erasmus+ in 2014, with its remit expanded to cover education, training, youth programmes and sports. The EU now plans to expand Erasmus+ over the next seven years to provide opportunities for over 10 million people by 2027, albeit not now including anyone from Britain which will no longer reap any of the benefits of participation that we had previously profited from. Yes, we did actually profit from participation. Drawing on the most recent statistics, participation in Erasmus+ contributed £420 million annually, which, after costs including Britain’s contribution to the scheme, netted an income of £243 million for the UK economy. On pure financial issues alone how is such a sum to be replaced?

As the Independent’s article from 15th December pointed out, the government is considering a ‘domestic alternative’. Yet, what would this hypothetical ‘alternative’ look like? A few years ago we, who are involved in year abroad placements, were discussed the prospect of the Swiss model – a model wherein the UK pays both for student mobility from the UK and for student mobility to the UK from partner institutions. How that could be more cost effective, I cannot say, and frankly, I don’t see that it can. This ‘domestic alternative’ may yet take a different shape, but with weeks to go until the transition period ends, we still have no clear picture as to what it will look like and nor do our students currently either participating in Erasmus+ now or planning for their year abroad in the coming academic year. If you think that is shambolic, you are right, it truly is. You might suggest that we simply abandon the year abroad – leaving aside the implications for linguistic proficiency – stopping mobility simply is not an option legally. UK degrees are governed by consumer law as a consequence of the introduction of tuition fees. UK universities thus have to honour what they say they will offer. It is not only language students who go abroad as a compulsory part of their degree programme, so we are not simply talking about a relatively small cohort nationally, rather a study or work placement overseas is an option for many students, and one that is just about to get more complicated and far more expensive, too.

UK universities do already have bilateral agreements in place with partner institutions as part of their preparations for the end of the transition period. Bilateral agreements are far from new – yes student mobility did exist before Erasmus+ but that was in a vastly different era, one notably not burdened by the weight of tuition fees which now present a stumbling block for many. In addition to their tuition costs, UK students will now have to pay for a visa when studying abroad- precise costs are – as yet – unclear and will vary from country to country. The issue of visas has an impact bi-directionally, of course. It is not just UK students who have to obtain visas but also incoming exchange students as well. Under current plans, it will cost a student from France, for example, £1,000 for a visa for a full academic year. This is prohibitively expensive and will inevitably impact on student mobility – as that dwindles, so too will the bilateral partnerships on which UK universities depend in order to fulfil their legal obligations. It is with this in mind that colleagues and I from Leeds, Newcastle, Royal Holloway and Warwick, all members of the Year Abroad Network, recently wrote to Universities UK, asking them to lobby parliament for a reclassification of student visas. We can see now the long term costs of the government’s current visa plans.

The end of participation in Erasmus+ will also negatively affect the well-known issues around language learning in the UK, with the long-term decline in language study and the knock-on effects of this on the wider economy. The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) has previously commented on the value of languages to business, showing how the UK’s propensity towards monolingualism is bad for business, leaving the UK unable to seize international opportunities as effectively as it could. We already know the lack of linguistic competence puts us at a disadvantage, yet still the UK government’s stance on Erasmus+ will hinder us further and for longer and at a time when we need to be able to communicate more than ever to trade but also to cope with the challenges of surviving a global pandemic. I note, not without a sense of irony, how elsewhere during the pandemic people have turned to refreshing their language skills and gaining new ones, all whilst the UK government signals a disinterest in multilingualism and makes the chances of developing linguistic proficiency for those so inclined to do all the more difficult and further from reach.

Interestingly, monolingualism, which we take to be a particularly British trait, has not always been the norm. As John Gallagher (University of Leeds) has shown in his research, in early modern England urban multilingualism was very much alive, and a veritable cacophony of vernaculars could be heard in UK cities. Moreover, these were not just the languages spoken by the migrant communities who settled in England but also by English speakers who were keen to learn languages.

Language learning – for all the low value attached to this skill in the UK now at least – and in stark contrast to our early modern past – is actually highly valuable and the benefits go beyond the purely financial. If we just look to education, we note that research shows the multiple benefits beyond linguistic competence including but not limited to increased cognition, academic performance, greater emotional perception. My own research has raised the question of the potential positive impact of the Year Abroad on mental health. As opportunities for student mobility decrease, it is fair to extrapolate from that that mental health issues and associated costs will likely increase, whilst cognition and academic performance will be negatively impacted. Medical research has demonstrated the neurological benefits of language learning on the brain, ranging from size to delaying the onset of dementia. Increasingly, questions are also being asked about the impact of language learning, of multilingualism on chronic conditions such as hypermobility, specifically on how this may benefit the voice. Limiting our opportunities to embrace and engage with multiple languages makes no sense on any level, indeed it suggests the cost to society is already great and will only be more burdensome in time.

The inevitable counter-argument to multilingualism, and indeed a factor in its decline in the UK, has to do with the dominance of English globally – why bother, everyone speaks English anyway, is a pitiful excuse I’ve heard more times than I care to remember. It is also a fallacy -the whole world not speak English. Moreover, an inability to speak in a language other than one’s own is limiting. Even where people do not speak another language, their lives are impacted by those who do. Just look to the translation industry. We might not see it, but is serves our economy. We all shop online and we buy products developed in countries other than the UK. Your ability to read the instructions on how to use your latest gadgets and gizmos, is all thanks to the translators who rendered them accessible to you. Translation is not limited to products either. The new Pfizer – COVID vaccine – developed by Turkish-German migrants is a timely reminder not only of the value of immigration but of the essential role linguistic competence plays in medicine and pharmaceuticals – where would we be without medical translators? These are just two examples out of many.

If you know anything about the translation industry you already know that the industry standard is that a translator works from their second, third, fourth language into their first language. Inevitably, some less than scrupulous companies will ignore this, putting profit before standards, but any good translation company is uncompromising on this. Yet, with the decline in language learning in the UK, coupled with the end of participation in Erasmus+, the translation industry and every aspect of the work they do, will be affected. Perhaps we will be dependent on translators ‘working in the wrong direction’ i.e. into a second language because we simply will not have enough people who are competent. So ask yourself this, if you are about to take new medication or have a newly developed vaccine, one developed outside of the UK and you want to read about it first, its potential side effects and contra-indications, do you really want that to be ‘translated in the wrong direction’ because of the UK’s monolingual dependence culture?

In summary the loss of UK participation in Erasmus+ benefits no one but it has the potential to impact the UK well and truly beyond the students and staff immediately and directly affected.

For further reading see the following:

CBI, ‘Government unveils plans to improve language skills’ , 1. August 2018, https://www.cbi.org.uk/articles/government-unveils-plans-to-improve-language-skills/

John Gallagher, Learning Languages in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, 2019 https://global.oup.com/academic/product/learning-languages-in-early-modern-england-9780198837909?cc=gb&lang=en&#

Benjamin Kulka, ‘The cognitive benefits of learning a language in two minutes’, The British Academy, https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/cognitive-benefits-learning-language-two-minutes/

Jon Stone, ‘UK set to lose access to Erasmus exchange programme as Brexit talks struggle’ Independent, 15th December 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-erasmus-eu-exchange-b1774348.html

UUK, ‘Erasmus+ negotiations will not be included in Withdrawal Agreement Bill’ , 9th January 2020 https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/International/news/Pages/Erasmus_withdrawal_agreement.aspx#:~:text=In%202017%2C%20incoming%20Erasmus%2B%20students,through%20a%20national%20replacement%20scheme.%22

Anon, ‘Podcast “Die Stunde Null”. Warum viele Menschen in der Pandemie Sprachen lernen.’ https://www.stern.de/wirtschaft/stunde-null/die-stunde-null–warum-viele-menschen-in-der-pandemie-sprachen-lernen-9534854.html

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