The Brexification of Year Abroads

To provide some context at the beginning of this article, my name is Amy Joy, and I am a 3rd-year student studying BA Politics and German at the University of Bath, although I am sure that you are already aware of this thanks to my incredibly popular column that I’m told most freshers revere like a Bible! I am currently on a work placement in Germany and Brexit has meant that what should have been a smooth process has now become a bureaucratic Olympics.

In a culture so focused on arriving at university, doing the right internships, and then graduating with a job offer ready to go, a year abroad provides the opportunity to clearly flesh out a character that is not just the professional shell demanded by capitalist society. It allows you to embrace a new culture, develop language skills, form new networks, and build a strong character that understands the value of independence, whilst also being confident in your abilities. After all, moving abroad and living away from everything you know for a whole year is no small feat! It is also an opportunity to reflect and focus on long-term career goals and pursue what interests you most. According to a report by Brookings EDU, over two-thirds of students who took part in a year abroad report having a better understanding of their long-term career goals.

And yet, the conservative government continues to do a disservice to the country through their handling of Brexit, by voting against an amendment that would have required the government to negotiate on continuing the UK’s full membership to the EU’s Erasmus programme. The economic cost of Brexit is widely discussed,  but the gravity of this enormous cultural loss simply cannot be calculated.

The Erasmus programme, founded in 1987, facilitated and opened up study-abroad opportunities at a huge scale, mainly by providing funding through grants. It was a stepping stone for future generations to broaden their horizons, travel, work, and profit from the single market. It mainly assists students through funding, and, according to Brookings Edu in 2019, over 1 million young people participated in the programme.

Back in January 2020, The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson confidently declared that “there is no threat to the UK Erasmus scheme” and that “UK students will continue to participate in the scheme”, but amidst his frequent partying, as demonstrated through the ‘partygate’ scandal, it seems that the continuation of Erasmus was not high up his list.

The UK government has now attempted to replace the Erasmus scheme with the Turing scheme. However, there are a few key flaws which include Turing only supporting outgoing students, not providing funding for tuition fees, and failing to provide any opportunities for universities and research. In contrast, Erasmus supports research and teaching in the EU and promotes collaboration across countries.

For myself and my peers, the entire process of organising a year abroad was difficult. Due to Brexit, we had to apply for student/work visas at a hefty cost, whereas previously movement to and from the UK into the EU was in no way restricted. As I was doing a work placement, I had to apply for a work visa, but here’s the real kicker  ̶  I had to apply and receive an offer for not one, but TWO placements as Germany only offers a 6-month work visa. This also means I must reapply for a new visa at Christmas! Combine this with the utter lack of information surrounding the visa application and you get a sense of the size of the hurdle that had to be overcome.

My experience in trying to obtain a visa can be very easily and quickly summarised through the phrase ‘no one has any idea what is going on’.  I was confused, my placement officers were confused, and even the individuals who worked at the visa centre couldn’t answer my questions! It was also just a very long waiting game, which was mentally exhausting, as after 6 months of putting all my energy towards finding placements I was now being told that all I could do was wait- whilst I was simply itching to get to Germany.

There was also an immense amount of paperwork to complete, with almost no assistance, although the one piece of information that was drilled into us was that we must remember to print out 2 copies of every document we take with us. This meant I was left with a stack of paper so tall that I probably directly contributed to the deforestation of a large area of trees (sorry BULU- I promise I’ll attend more climate protests in 4th year!).

Fortunately, after all this hassle my visa was processed relatively quickly, and I have now been interning in Germany for 5 months. However, the entire experience was time-consuming, difficult, and very stressful. I was lucky enough to have a good support network during this time, as well as a fierce determination to make it through to the other side, but for many others, this level of inaccessibility will surely be a deal-breaker when it comes to applying for a year abroad.

Furthermore, the problem remains that aside from my meagre student loan (which has been reduced for this year!) and the wages I receive at my internship, I have received no other funding. The Turing scheme has only just opened for the 2023-24 cohort, which is a testament to its inefficiency. Furthermore, it does not provide funding for all students, like the Erasmus scheme, so I still do not even know whether I will receive anything. As I am working, I can just about manage, but for someone studying this will be detrimental.

I also spoke to some of my peers about their experiences. Toby, who is working in Munich for a year, brought up the fact that we now must pay nearly 100 pounds for a visa, which does not include the travel costs to go to the embassy. Both of us also must reapply for visas, which means paying for flights home and then the same costs all over again ̶ as well as having to wait around at home. There is no tracking system for visa processing so we will have to idly wait around without any idea of how long it will take. He has also been turned away from banks because he is not an EU citizen and has therefore struggled to set up an account. Toby expressed his frustration at not knowing whether he would receive Turing funding and feels that not enough is being done by the UK government to ensure youth mobility.

Sam, who is working in Austria for the year also expressed this same discontent, stating that he experienced lengthy delays with documentation. He finds that the Turing scheme does not properly fulfil its purpose of funding a year’s experience for students as the funding is limited. One can only apply in autumn which is months after most of us start our year abroad, and you only receive the final instalment once your year abroad is completed! Put simply, it is a ridiculous system not at all designed to make life easier for students.

Another friend, Beccie, is currently studying abroad in China and will then work in Germany for 6 months in 2024. She intends to stay in China until January 2024 and therefore has no time to come home to apply for a visa. Instead, she will have to arrive in Germany on a temporary basis and then apply. This creates further issues as many employers are also not aware of how the new system works, which can lead to animosity and frustration towards British students. She has said that she finds the Turing scheme far too complicated and therefore will not be applying. Beccie feels that Brexit will now directly impact not only the number of students going on a year abroad but also the number that decide to study languages in the first place which is cause for grave concern.

Through articulating these experiences in this article, I hope to have illustrated just how inaccessible a year abroad has become for British students. We are currently living in a time where language education receives close to no attention, and we seem to rely on the utterly false idea that ‘everybody speaks English’. This neo-colonialist thinking directly contributes to such huge losses in personal development and cultural awareness, and these issues then plague society for generations to come. From just 5 months in Europe, I have found that so many people I meet speak at least 2 or more languages, and it is a joy to hear the fondness with which some speak of their experiences on Erasmus. The importance of cultural awareness and foreign language aptitude cannot be further stressed. The confidence and joy I have experienced from being able to live in Germany and work in a professional environment whilst speaking the language is unlike any other feeling.

It is important to have clear goals and a plan for the future, but we should not just chase them like robots. Undertaking experiences that push you out of your comfort zone and force you to try new and difficult things whilst meeting new people and making connections ensures that you arrive at your destination ready to undertake the next challenge and keep on aiming higher and higher rather than just settling on the mediocre. When applying to university I wrote my personal statement on the importance of language learning and the negative political implications of the UK’s belief that English is the lingua franca of the world. Therefore, believe me when I say I could continue talking about this topic for hours. Instead, I will conclude with a quote from Nelson Mandela that used to hang in the languages department of my secondary school: “If you speak to a man in a language that he understands, it goes to his head. If you speak to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

North Macedonia, Iceland, Turkey, Norway, Serbia, and Lichtenstein all participate in Erasmus as non-EU member nations and the EU has signalled that it is on board to reopen negotiations on the topic. I can only urge the UK government to take up this offer, and not rob future generations of invaluable opportunities.

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