Ameera Rajabali and Olivia Stanca-Mustea spent Christmas away from home this year, but neither was especially lonely.
The pair, from the UK and Romania respectively, met as graduate students in Heidelberg in 2015 after taking part in the Erasmus European exchange programme. After bonding over their experiences they became best friends — living, working and now spending lockdown Christmas together in Berlin.
“Whenever you meet someone from Erasmus, you have an immediate bond,” said Ms Stanca-Mustea, who spent a year at Durham University as part of the exchange.
For her, Erasmus offered access to high-calibre UK programmes, while Ms Rajabali said it brought expanded horizons and new friends.
Future generations, however, will not all enjoy the same opportunities. Under the Brexit deal announced last week, the UK will leave Erasmus after 33 years and hundreds of thousands of UK participants.
Erasmus is an EU programme that funds university students to study abroad for a year or semester at a university in Europe. Since 2014, as Erasmus+, it has expanded to provide other opportunities such as work placements and training exchanges.
While agreed projects will continue to be funded, overseas study exchanges and other schemes will no longer be available in the UK or to UK students in Europe.
Former Erasmus students are mourning that Brexit will end what many called the defining experience of their youth.
“It breaks my heart to know they are not only going to lose access to this incredible scheme but the end of freedom of movement will sever opportunities for them further,” said Flora Menzies, originally from Manchester who spent her year abroad studying in Italy.
Now 35 and head of audience at London charity Into Film, she said her Erasmus year at the University of Bologna “quite literally” changed her life.
“The UK has so much to learn from its European neighbours and I fear for a post-Brexit reality that is inward-looking, culturally impoverished and regressive.”
Veronika Sohlström, whose family fled communist-era Poland for Germany, said she could never have afforded to see the UK had it not been for Erasmus, which funded her year at the University of East Anglia in 2006.
Now a programme manager at the Dag Hammerskjöld Foundation in Sweden, an international organisation focused on global governance and peacebuilding, she credits her UK studies for her career.
“The idea of this kind of opportunity, that I could study in the UK, could never have happened for my parents,” she said. “For people like me who came from a family that didn’t have the financial means, it opens doors.”
Last year, 54,619 people took part in UK-led Erasmus opportunities, funded by grants totalling €145m. Of those, 9,993 were British students on placements in Europe, with 17,768 Europeans coming to the UK. The others were participants on vocational trainings and other Erasmus+ programmes.
After Brexit, those exchanges will be replaced by the Turing scheme, a £100m UK government programme for 35,000 students to take part in international study placements in 2021/22.
“We have designed a truly international scheme which is focused on our priorities, delivers real value for money and forms an important part of our promise to level up the United Kingdom,” said Gavin Williamson, the education secretary.
But those working in the sector are sceptical.
Professor Paul James Cardwell, a law professor and Erasmus co-ordinator at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, said infrastructure covered by Erasmus — agreements on course credits, tuition fees and other kinds of support — would now have to be renegotiated in a bureaucratic and costly process.
The estimated £2,800 per student covered by Turing funding looks meagre compared with this task and the costs of flights, tuition and accommodation in countries like Australia or the US.
“When exchanges are run properly you have students from all sorts of backgrounds take part. It improves those young people’s long-term prospects,” he said.
“My fear is that in coming out of Erasmus, those students are in the long term not going to have those opportunities.”
The Turing scheme also covers only half of an Erasmus-style exchange, funding British students on placements overseas but not those travelling to study in the UK. Prof Cardwell said this gave little incentive for foreign universities to take part in the programme and deprived UK students of the chance to learn alongside others from around the world.
Ireland said it would fund hundreds of Northern Ireland students to participate in the Erasmus exchanges by allowing them to register temporarily at Irish institutions, at a cost of €2.1m per year.
“This proposal is also a practical expression of solidarity and aims to provide continued access to EU opportunities to young people in Northern Ireland in what could be an uncertain social and economic environment,” said Simon Harris, Irish minister for further and higher education.
The British government insists the Turing programme will be an improvement, affording access to opportunities beyond Europe for a more diverse range of students than the Erasmus programme.
But Professor Tanja Bueltmann, the daughter of a German seamstress and a factory worker who was inspired to do a PhD after Erasmus, said the idea that it was a scheme for the liberal elite was “nonsense”.
“It enables people from all kinds of different class and social backgrounds to experience education abroad,” said Prof Bueltmann, who is now a chair in international history at the University of Strathclyde.
“When you’re creating a research environment, you need students, and when you have them from so many backgrounds and experiences you’re all the richer. We’ll be much poorer for this.”