The Government’s decision not to subscribe to the ERASMUS scheme for student exchange is desperately sad. The scheme has benefited British young people since 1987.
In the Guardian, Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, was quoted as saying that “the Erasmus programme transformed the lives of thousands of young people”. My life was one of those.
The privilege of the ERASMUS scheme for me and many others is to immerse yourself in a culture. It is a fundamentally different experience to being a tourist. The Government is making the statement that the next generation of young people should not have the same experiences, and certainly not with other Europeans.
From 1993 to 1994 I spent two terms at the Universite Francois Rabelais in Tours as part of my undergraduate history degree at York.
The ERASMUS exchange was an extraordinarily rich time. My highlights included ending up in the elite Conservatoire by mistake which shared a building with the music department. The bassoon teacher took pity on me and gave me six months free lessons on the French basson, which is a subtly different instrument to the orchestral bassoon. I played in the university orchestra, travelling round the Loire Valley performing in concerts that were more enjoyable to play in than to listen to.
I spent the first term in Tours taking history classes with the French students and being assessed on my work with them. I prepared a presentation on the French and German coal industries in the 19th century, delivered wearing a tribal Rhondda rugby top. A slight speech impediment meant that I had to write the word “houille”, meaning coal, on a board and pointed to it as the moment came so my classmates could help me out.
My time in Tours was then extended so that I could research an undergraduate dissertation on the Wars of Religion in the city. The Calvinists held the city briefly in 1562 but were the victims of a subsequent massacre and persecution. The events defined the identities of the people of Tours and their descendants. Surviving Calvinists and their families either converted or left.
The great French historian Bernard Chevalier praised the scheme. He said: “Even after the return to calm, nothing was the same as before. The solidarities, the mutual understanding, the confidence which one group dealt with another, the common vision of the different classes were fractured in the ‘Bonne Ville’ divided against itself, like a kingdom in peril.”
Re-reading it made me think that the cultural choices of the Referendum will define our different identities. The Brexit campaign and its aftermath seeks to re-set what it means to be British. In doing so, the Government is narrowing the perspectives of future generations, a betrayal of the hope that each generation builds a platform for the following generation to aim higher.
I had a life-changing experience through ERASMUS. My time in Tours was the springboard for my entry to the Civil Service’s European Fast Stream. In the European Commission Secretariat-General I worked on strategic planning for the accession of Central and Eastern European states into the European Union. In my turn, I had been encouraged to be an internationalist through the perspectives of my grandfathers, who both served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.