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Clouding our own horizons

After the death of the scheme’s creator, Erasmus graduate JACK ARSCOTT describes his mind-altering university experiences and why they should not be denied to others

Erasmus of Rotterdam is buried in the red sandstone cathedral in Basel, a Swiss city with regional bus lines connecting it with France and Germany and an excavated Roman town just outside it.

This may seem an odd final resting place for most Dutch philosophers, but not so the Renaissance humanist who lends his name to one of the great European institutions: the Erasmus+ programme, which has broadened the horizons of more than nine million students within the EU since its creation 30 years ago by Manuel Marín, the Spanish politician who died last week.

Britain has sent more than 200,000 of its sons and daughters to the continent’s universities in that time, consolidating crucial links with partner institutions and exposing students to radically different perspectives. In the face of a damaging and long-winded Brexit, the vital importance of clinging on to the Erasmus programme in some form cannot be overstated. Yet in the absence of any unequivocal declarations of intent, let alone any sophisticated analysis of the scheme’s virtues, it falls to its beneficiaries to make the case.

So here goes. Unlike this year’s cohort of undergraduates, I began my university career in 2012 safe in the knowledge that the residence abroad element of my French and German degree would be honoured.

First was Université Catholique de Lille. The class I most relished was French literature session, presided over by a mild-mannered man whose encyclopaedic knowledge and unstinting enthusiasm put me on to Nathalie Sarraute, Françoise Sagan and, less happily, Joris-Karl Huysmans.

He also made me laugh with his insistence that every masterpiece of French literature could somehow be traced back to the same German thinker. At the slightest suggestion of Sisyphean allegory, he would shoot us all a knowing look and declare in a tone of weary finality ‘Schopen-auer!’.

When the French football team thrashed neighbours Switzerland in the 2014 World Cup that summer, I was watching in a university bar as the domestic contingent saluted each goal with a throaty rendition of the Marseillaise. As there were five of these to cheer, I was afforded ample opportunity to contemplate the terrible virulence of the national hymn, and next week I gave a presentation in oral class on the modern-day suitability of some of the anthem’s more strident sentiments.

Our world view – derived from the German Weltanschauung – takes root at an early age. That is why the removal of this precious portal for discerning and understanding the psychological landscape beyond our island community would have such grave implications for our future.

No experience is uniformly positive, as my visceral reaction to the casual tribalism of the French football fans had shown me, but the hard-earned right of the travelled observer to a nuanced opinion is not to be confused with the uninformed prejudice to which the bigot imagines he is entitled.

After France, a year at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität confronted me with the prevailing preference for research over lecture theatre panache. Many British students groan inwardly at any lecturer who fails to transmit their all-consuming passion to a captive audience of listeners. In Germany, however, the bumbling bookworm in his crumpled shirt and tie is preaching to the converted.

Nor is the Erasmus effect confined to the classroom. I owe it my best friend, whom I met while attending a summer school at the University of Heidelberg, part funded by the programme.

The unquantifiable beauty of Erasmus is its ability to bring together young Europeans with similar interests and temperaments who would normally be segregated by accident of birth and national border. My kindred spirit would prove to be an Italian girl with an obsession with dusty bookshops to rival my own. Frequent though these excursions were, we refrained from exchanging contact details until it was time to go home. Until then, we could rely on the spirit of Erasmus – or destiny, as we laughingly called it – to make us bump into one another.

I am also ultimately indebted to the scheme for my first job. Without the exposure to unfamiliar working environments that Erasmus granted me, I would never have moved out to Hamburg to take up a traineeship at a translation agency months after graduating. But that is the point of Erasmus. It breaks down the mental barriers preventing us from taking bold choices.

The bigger picture is that Erasmus has formalised and opened up a trend that used to be the preserve of the privileged few. The 19th century Polish-German lyricist Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, whose bildungsroman From The Life of a Good For Nothing I studied in Munich, has his Rome-bound narrator thrown out of somebody’s orchard en route to ‘the land where bitter oranges grow’.

Decades after the book’s publication, none other than Goethe himself was accused of espionage by the Italian authorities after he was spotted intently sketching a fortress on the Italian border. Yet, until Amber Rudd’s attempt to crack down on foreign students last year, such suspicions had receded into a pre-Erasmus era in which international relations were focused on invasion rather than mutual instruction.

It’s no wonder the present government has so little to say on the subject. None at the top table are young enough to have any first-hand experience of it, and are at odds with the cosmopolitan mindset of the Erasmus generation.

Our withdrawal from European discourse has been signalled for a long time, though. The decision in 2004 to make the availability of modern languages optional at GCSE level was the starting gun of a process that has closed university language departments across the country. The likely collapse of our involvement in Erasmus is set to supply the nail in the coffin, at least until our universities can come to individual arrangements with all of their former partners in turn.

Nightmarish though it may seem, this possibility was actually floated by a senior academic in my faculty on the morning of the referendum result. That morning, I pleaded with sceptical parents at the departmental open day not to advise their children against studying a modern language. Now more than ever, I told them, we need to show a conciliatory face, to meet our neighbours halfway by deigning to speak their language, to prove we are still interested in what they say.

Our involvement in the Erasmus scheme must not die with its creator.

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