The European Union's exchange programme, the European Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS), has had over 3.3 million participants since its establishment in 1987 (European Commission, 2014). The programme offers an interesting contrast with the Fulbright Program. The U.S. has, at times, struggled to balance foreign policy impacts on the programme with calls to preserve its apolitical, academic nature. The European Union, on the other hand, created its exchange program with explicitly political aims. It was part of a greater ‘People’s Europe’ project in the 1980's, created to strengthen public support for integration and foster a European identity amongst the young people who participated in the study abroad programme. Most studies have found that ERASMUS students feel more 'European' after the exchange experience, and often go on to internationally-oriented careers (Papatsiba, 2005; Teichler and Janson, 2007; Mitchell, 2012; etc.).
In 2010, a surprising study found ERASMUS participants reporting lower levels of European identity at the end of their sojourn. Emmanuel Sigalas, the author from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, offers two potential explanations for this unexpected result. One possibility is that participants began the sojourn with a strong European identity, which meant “there is more scope for deterioration rather than improvement.” (Sigalas, 2010, p. 260). The more convincing explanation, however, is that the host country may have had a significant effect: the incoming students in this particular study were in the UK. “It is important to note that incoming students came to study in one of the most Eurosceptic countries of the EU, where…people are amongst the least likely in Europe to identify as European.” (ibid., pp. 260-261).
Now, the interesting part about this finding, given the Brexit results: four out of the nine UK universities included in the study were located in places that voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. This suggests that students may have been exposed to Eurosceptic attitudes during their sojourn, which could undermine attempts to forge a European identity. In hindsight, it appears that Sigalas' findings might be explained by the simple fact that his subjects went to places like Keele and Southampton, which voted to leave (69% and 53%, respectively).
On a related note, The Guardian had a piece on the uncertain post-Brexit future of ERASMUS yesterday. The exchange programme relies on basic EU tenets, free movement of people and capital, to operate across the 27 member states. The UK might join the list of countries outside of the EU that participate in ERASMUS fully: Iceland, Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey. Alternatively, it might go the way of Switzerland and be a "partner country" not a "programme country" (the long list of partner countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe, have a more limited scope in terms of the types of exchanges that they can host). I'm sure the ERASMUS generation who voted to remain in the EU are hoping for Britain to keep its "partner" status.
A couple of interesting bits from the article:
"Ironically, Erasmus has its genesis in the UK: its founding father was Dr. Hywel Ceri Jones, among the early senior British appointments to the EEC, to head its first education and training department. He had worked with Professor Asa Briggs at Britain’s first European Studies department at Sussex University, which inspired the European pilot in 1976, he explained this week: “the idea that the internationalisation of study had to be open to all disciplines, not just languages. So we brought in the scientists, social sciences and arts”.
Dr. Ceri Jones, who went on to become Director General for employment and social policy at the European Commission, told the Observer: “Erasmus will still flourish in Europe, but UK universities have been a powerful magnet, because of the English language. I feel bereaved by Brexit, and if it leads to the end of freedom of movement and exclusion of the UK from Erasmus, this would be devastating – a tragedy of staggering proportions for universities throughout the country, for the structured internationalisation of our academic institutions, which is what Erasmus is all about”."