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The Erasmus Fantasy

In a long career of university teaching – 1968-2014 – many of the most interesting and satisfying moments involved overseas students. There was the robust Finnish girl bursting into my room demanding clarification of what I had said about rowing in my book on amateurism. The quiet Italian lad with a slightly aristocratic demeanour (echoes of Lampedusa) whose sceptical questioning of orthodoxy was regarded by all present as always worth listening to. Or the Greek girl who read voraciously and questioned relentlessly. And generically, for someone teaching courses on the politics of sport and the politics of the environment there was the usefulness of the student who would say, “We’d look at this problem completely differently in Norway (or wherever)”. Overseas students, more than domestic ones, offered that elusive symbiosis of teaching and research which academics were always banging on about. Kipling’s rhetorical question, “What do they know of England that only England know?” is relevant to the business of overseas students.

And then there were the most numerous foreign nationality in my classes, the Japanese. Overwhelmingly female they offered the challenge, in a system of teaching where one of the things you were supposed to learn was how to argue and express an opinion, of a culture in which they had been brought up not to argue or express an opinion. I often met the students when they arrived and at first used to judge that this was not going to be a success – the cultural and linguistic barriers were too formidable, but teaching them two years on I was almost invariably impressed by what had been achieved through hard work and determination. It was my pedagogic fantasy objective that one day a young woman called Aiko or Mihoko would say, “Lincoln, what you just said was complete bollocks”. This had often been said in the happy, stormy days at the start of my career, but of course no Japanese ever said it, though I did get some to be comfortable with expressing an opinion demurely.

All of these cases were students from overseas who had chosen to do their degree in England though many of the Europeans were beneficiaries of the EU insofar as they only paid domestic fees. By the time I taught them on my final-year options they were linguistically fluent and culturally assimilated. I have completely different memories of the Erasmus students who came for shorter exchanges on the EU’s exchange scheme named after the Dutch “catholic humanist” Desiderius Erasmus Roteradamus (1466-1536) – who ticked a few convenient boxes for a pan-European ideology. These came for a maximum of a year and often for as short a period as two months. Usually they were eminently forgettable, but my most vivid memory is of two sullen young women from Bordeaux sitting in my environmental politics seminar who resolutely refused to contribute anything except to spit out corrected pronunciations every time I mentioned a French word or name. Meanwhile I was fielding tearful ‘phone calls from one of our students in Bordeaux (which was part of our “Erasmus network”) who was terrified of the level of violence endemic in the banlieu in which she had been accommodated.

The Erasmus Programme of university exchanges formally started in 1987 though prototypes go back to 1981. It incorporates a previous “Socrates” scheme and is now called Erasmus Plus. Notwithstanding my experiences it has attracted considerable enthusiasm and idealism. Perhaps the extreme case was the late Italian writer Umberto Eco who saw it, as many others have, as creating a new European identity. He went further than most in imagining “sexual integration”, a million “Erasmus babies” who would see themselves as part of no nationality other than “European”. This would have made Erasmus, which has had at the time of writing just over three million students, one of the more successful marriage bureaux or dating agencies in history. Perhaps aware that his scheme might look to others like the kind of breeding of a new cosmopolitan elite that a Bond villain would dream up he insisted that Erasmus should be extended to everyone including “plumbers and taxi-drivers”. What a spiffing idea: London full of Parisian taxi-drivers! Slightly more seriously the idea that international exchange will stimulate love and understanding for the exchangers is one that is constantly proved wrong. Otherwise, why would the Chinese Communist Party pay for 150,000 students at any one time to study in the USA (including the Chairman’s daughter, Xi Mingxe). Sometimes you love them more, sometimes less, sometimes the same.

A more recent enthusiast is Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon who in 2020 ostentatiously tried to keep Scotland in the scheme. There are actually non-EU countries in it such as Serbia and Turkey, but the EU baulked at including what is technically a part of a larger country. I find one of Sturgeon’s comments revealing: she said that opting out of schemes like this is “not who we are”. This commonly used contemporary formula reveals a very contemporary form of irrationality, support for a policy because of what it expresses about us, that we are cosmopolitan and progressive and other virtuous things, rather than support for policies that actually benefit people. Meanwhile the British Government has decided that Erasmus does not give value for money which would be better spent on its own, global “Turing” scheme.

Whatever advantages exchange schemes have for undergraduates they also come with huge unavoidable disadvantages. You are trying to build a progressive degree structure, one in which later courses build on earlier and that is completely destroyed when students go on exchanges. University systems are completely different. In my early years I was involved in an American exchange in which we bizarrely agreed that the same pieces of work would be marked on both sides of the Atlantic. I quickly became aware that what they were looking for was a demonstration of knowledge of the textbooks that had been set whereas I/we had a low opinion of the textbooks and were looking for a coherent argument so our assessment of the students was completely different.

And those problems occurred where both universities operated in the same language. The great thing-in-the-room for Erasmus is the language problem. In my experience academics are embarrassed and pretentious when it comes to questions of language: they pretend that they can operate in French in seminar conditions when they can’t and they pretend that their foreign students understand more of what’s going on than they actually do. (In my personal experience this led to some spectacular marking rows.) And that’s in England, the optimal destination for Erasmus students because nearly all those arriving are quite good at English and sincerely want to be better. But what do they do in Poland? Actually they hold separate classes for Erasmus students in English. It is different in mathematically based subjects, but in the humanities and social studies real achievement depends on nuanced and sophisticated linguistic skills. Having said that it must be pointed out that any problem posed by Erasmus students was totally dwarfed by the general problem of fee paying overseas students in English universities. I made myself very unpopular on one occasion by pointing out that I was being required to teach students who just didn’t understand English (though they were paying full fees).

Of course from a British point of view there is also the problem that hardly anybody can actually operate in a foreign language. Actually, to my surprise, the Higher Education Policy Institute claims that 32% of people in this country aged 16-30 can operate in a foreign language as compared with 89% in the EU. Comparing this with experience this seems an absurdly high figure until you realise that there are 16 million people in the country with a mother tongue other than English.

It was widely reported that 90% of academic staff in British universities were in favour of remaining in the European Union. In a minority of cases this was because of a genuine rejection of national identity and its constraints, but in most cases it was a strong but very vague sense of the cosmopolitan which combined taste with self interest. International students pay the wages and international research projects get you dining in Strasbourg and Bologna. I was considerably less enthusiastic than most. At the beginning of my career I was in a small department of male anglophones; by the end I was in a vast Tower of Babel. Something had been gained, but a great deal had been lost including collegiality and honesty. Somehow we had moved from a world in which students were prepared to tell me that I was talking bollocks to one in which their children would only mention that they thought some of their lecturers had an inadequate grasp of the language sotto voce and with a drink in their hands. In the last seminar I ever taught as a salaried employee there were twenty five students and the Kazakhs outnumbered the English by three to two. The unstated purpose was no longer debate and self-expression, but instruction. I felt sorry for the two English students and thought they deserved better.

In short, like a lot of things that go on in universities, the Erasmus scheme is not even designed to work well academically, but is a piece of symbolic, expressive politics and we are right to abandon it. Overseas students are a great asset provided they come for a full degree course and, where necessary, an assimilation year to start with. Personally, although I’ve staggered along in French and Italian all my life (having a father who spoke both fluently) I would have thought it a waste of time to pretend to study in those languages. What I and many of my generation did do was to travel, freely and slightly dangerously, by sticking our thumbs out and getting to wherever we could. I got to Africa and Asia. I experienced dictatorships in Greece and Spain, fled from a coup in Libya, experienced the purest of racism with an African companion in the old Yugoslavia, dined with lovely Italian lorry drivers, lost all my money in a Munich gambling den, met an unreformed Nazi in Leipzig, and woke up in ditches and oases and that’s only the half of it. That was what the vacation was for and it was surely better than sitting in some French or German lecture as part of somebody else’s political project.

(An edited version of this article was published by The Critic in November 2021.)

Lincoln Allison