Scottish students could continue participating in the Erasmus exchange programme in spite of Brexit, The Times has revealed.
Officials in Holyrood and Brussels have entered into talks over extending the Erasmus scheme to Scottish students, the paper reports, after almost 150 MEPs wrote EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen asking whether Scotland and Wales could rejoin the programme.
UK students are no longer eligible for the scheme under new rules agreed to under Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal.
Downing Street says it intends to replace the initiative with its own “Turing Scheme” – named after the mathematician Alan Turing – which it says will provide more students with opportunities to study abroad than under the EU scheme.
The Times reports talks between Mariya Gabriel, the commissioner for education in Brussels, and the Scottish higher education minister Richard Lochhead took place to discuss the potential of the two administrations working together on the scheme.
In their letter, 141 MEPs called on president von der Leyen to “recognise a pronounced aspiration coming from Scotland and Wales” to rejoin the programme.
It was signed several high-profile EU politicians and was drawn up by Terry Reintke, who spent a year in Edinburgh on exchange.
In a statement, Reintke said that “every young European” should get a chance to participate in the exchange programme, because “not only helps it to understand the host country, but also to experience first-hand European values and ideas”.
The letter, sent on Friday, read: “The Erasmus programme has proven to have a significant impact on young people’s lives in Europe – not only on their language, cultural and personal skills, but also on their motivation to strengthen a peaceful and solidary European society.”
It also asked whether there was a “pathway” for Scotland and Wales to rejoin the scheme.
Speaking after the trade deal with the EU was signed, Lochhead said: “The loss of Erasmus is huge blow. This is simply unacceptable and we are looking at alternative options.
“After years of discussions and meetings, the UK government has made these decisions irrespective of the views of the devolved administrations.
“We found out from media reports more details of the UK’s alternative scheme, which is a watered-down and less well-funded version of Erasmus and it’s not even an exchange program because there is no support for visits to Scotland.”
Plaid Cymru also supports the initiative. Its Higher Education spokesperson, Bethan Sayed MS, said: “This is a welcome intervention from our European partners, which is proof of the strong feeling that exists across Europe for Wales to continue to participate in the Erasmus programme.
“The Westminster government’s decision to withdraw from Erasmus is extremely short-sighted and damaging to young people’s opportunities. There are significant shortfalls in the planned Turing scheme in comparison to Erasmus and the UK government has not outlined how – or if – they intend to improve Turing.
“Erasmus is not just about sending UK students to Europe for a few terms, it’s about ensuring EU students can come here and gift us with their talents and strengthen our universities and colleges. It’s about collaboration on cross border learning and shared research projects. It’s about benefiting from the talents of our partners across Europe and participating in important cultural exchanges.”
Plaid has pledged to work with the Welsh government to “explore all possible avenues to stay in Erasmus”.
A commission spokeswoman told The Times that EU negotiators had made it clear that Erasmus would be available to the whole of the UK and the letter from MEPs would be replied to in due course.