The University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, is a magnet for international students, who make up about 10% of the 36,000 enrolled there.
The main campus is unusually quiet, as the pandemic has cancelled exchange programmes and forced many students to stay home.
But it was another event that really struck at the heart of Utrecht’s international identity: the UK’s decision to pull out of the Erasmus+ study exchange programme in the wake of Brexit.
As a result, many students, like 22-year-old Theresa, from Germany, had to reconsider their plans to one day study in the United Kingdom.
“For me personally it had an impact, now with Brexit, that I can’t go there anymore with the Erasmus programme because I study economics and the UK is known to have really good universities for that. And for me as an international student it always was something I took for granted probably, that I could just go anywhere in Europe,” she said.
Without the financial help of Erasmus, tuition fees and the cost of living in the UK will become unaffordable for many foreign students.
It will also become harder for British students to obtain study-visas in other European countries.
For the Erasmus Student Network, the UK’s departure is a major blow to a programme that has often been hailed as one of the EU’s greatest success stories, responsible for shaping the European consciousness of more than 10 million people since it started in 1987.
Imke Greven, President of the Erasmus Student Network – The Netherlands, argues that “the support that you get generally with the Erasmus+ programme, with your grant, with all the support that you get from your home university, from the university that welcomes you…it’s just working so I wouldn’t understand why you would step out of something that is so beautiful for your students.”
According to the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, in charge of implementing the Erasmus programme, the Netherlands could become even more attractive to foreign students as a result of the UK’s departure, and a recent study shows that half of the students pursuing a degree in English would choose this country as their first alternative.
According to their spokesperson, Jeroen Wienen, “that is mostly due to our programmes in the Netherlands being of high quality, people speaking relatively good English in the Netherlands, and there are a lot of study programmes that are all in English.”
The UK government announced that Erasmus, which currently benefits some 18,000 British students per year, will be replaced in September with another scheme, named after Alan Turing.
However, despite Brexit, several officials in Utrecht and other European universities believe that the spirit of Erasmus lives on and that the long-standing academic cooperation between institutions on both sides of the channel will result in new bilateral agreements and scholarships.