'I feel lucky to be among the last British Erasmus students in France'

‘I’ve had the pleasure of observing the daily rhythms and routines of a culture that, despite its proximity to Dover, seems almost alien at times’

Mark Ross is completing a British Council placement in Boulogne-sur-Mer
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Scottish Erasmus student Mark Ross is currently completing a British Council teaching assistant post in Boulogne-sur-Mer (Pas-de-Calais) as part of the third year of his undergraduate degree in French and Politics at Bristol University.

Erasmus pays Mark and the other students on the scheme around €400 per month to supplement British Council or internship wages and help with living expenses during their year abroad. Programme participants can also attend Erasmus social and cultural events to meet other international students in their area.

Mark tells of his Erasmus experience, and considers what is coming next for students embarking on years abroad after the UK finalises its withdrawal from the scheme.

My time in France as an English-language assistant is in its final stages. And, as the curtains close on my year abroad, so too do they sadly shut on the UK’s relationship with the Erasmus programme.

In September 2021, the feted exchange programme was replaced by the UK government’s post-Brexit alternative – the Turing scheme. This means, of course, that my peers and I are the last cohort of British students, volunteers, youth workers and apprentices to reap the myriad benefits that our country’s membership of Erasmus entailed.

Given how the Erasmus has added a sparkle to my séjour in France, I should feel smug that I’ve managed to access the final round of funding before the UK leaves the scheme. Instead, I only feel sympathy towards future Europhiles who will not be able to access the same perks that I did.

The financial grant that I received, for example, equipped me for SNCF’s costly fares and to travel across the continent.

The other assistants and I were lucky enough to explore Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, La Rochelle and Strasbourg during our stay; adventures which helped us to absorb the diversity and richness of European culture.

As a teacher in two French collèges, my modest salary would not have been enough to fund these adventures alone.

Mark outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg Pic: Mark Ross / provided by interviewee

Socials, culture and language-learning

As well as this, the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) offered up a calendar-packing number of quality – and quirky – social events. These socials were the perfect excuse to meet other Erasmus students, and this social safety-net was an enduring comfort, reassuring me that – even if my wit and charm couldn’t cross the language barrier – I could always find an anglophone exchange student to suffer my jokes!

Living in the northern town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, I have also been submerged in French culture. I’ve been forced to speak an infinitely greater amount of French than I would have ever chosen to, given the option of speaking English.

And I’ve had the pleasure of observing the daily rhythms and routines of a culture that, despite its proximity to Dover, seems almost alien at times.

Although this was a British Council placement, this experience has undoubtedly been facilitated by the support of the Erasmus scheme.

What next for British students going on years abroad?

So, as the UK departs from the Erasmus family, will Brits studying abroad in the future be consigned to a fate of financial and social poverty?

In short, probably not. The Turing scheme, so far, is picking up where Erasmus left off.

This programme – named after Alan Turing the genius cryptographer – also provides funding to UK institutions for “education and training” across the world. It should enable up to “35,000” British students to study abroad.

In addition, the Turing scheme funds opportunities across the globe, not just in the EU. It also offers more support for disadvantaged students. For example, it provides means-tested financial support for visa applications, travel and insurance, among other costs.

But there are several question marks hanging over the Turing scheme. This month (March 2022), it will be officially privatised: Capita, a private company, will run the scheme, taking over from the British council.

The loss of the British Council’s expertise in running the Erasmus schemes, paired with Capita’s questionable track record with government contracts, have prompted some critics to label this move as risking “selling students short”.

Also, Turing funding is not available for teachers or youth workers. This means that, potentially, language assistants such as myself risk losing out on funding in the near future.

The question of universities organising study placements with foreign counterparts is another source of bureaucratic worry.

The Erasmus scheme has injected excitement and curiosity into my year in France. Whether or not future students continue to reap the same benefits from the Turing scheme remains to be seen.

Although, for now, the European show is over, let’s hope that the next generation of Europhiles continue to venture beyond the white cliffs – they have a lot to gain from doing so.

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