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Instead of national service, bring back Erasmus

The UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme was one of the fatalities of Brexit. It didn't have to be.

June 06 2024, 15.38pm

Rishi Sunak is making no secret of his general election strategy: he’s chasing the grannie vote. 

Not, God forbid, your disabled Granny, unhoused granny, your granny in a care home or on a gurney in an overflowing hospital. Just the granny who’s already well off and angry at everyone who isn’t. 

A big part of the strategy is shameless bribery, promising retirees that their state pensions won’t be taxed under his government.

But a core pillar of the prime minister’s offer to the elderly actually has little to do with the needs or circumstances of this age group. In fact, he’s playing on their assumptions about other people: the young.

Despite younger generations being highly socially and politically engaged – particularly over issues such as climate change – Sunak is parroting lazy preconceptions about them as idle, spoilt, and work-shy. 

So his big proposal has been to introduce national service for 18-year-olds, who can either take up a full-time military placement or volunteer for one weekend a month for a whole year. If they don’t show up, their parents could be fined.

Sunak has pitched this forced labour scheme as a generous gift to the young, saying it will provide the participants with “skills and opportunities... some structure, some rules”. 

Yet for all his talk of providing “skills” and “opportunities” to young people, Sunak continues to be a Brexit fundamentalist, a core facet of which is the conviction that the fears of older voters are more important than the prospects of younger ones. His national service gambit is simply an extension of this Little Britain mindset, resurrecting a policy ditched in the early 1960s when the memory of the Second World War was slowly fading.

If the prime minister wants to meaningfully help young people, he would revive a much more recent policy than national service – by allowing the UK to rejoin the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme. 

The UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme was one of the fatalities of Brexit. It didn't have to be: the EU now allows non-member states to take part in the scheme, which allows university students to sample an educational institution on the continent for a period of their studies. 

However, in one of the countless acts of post-Brexit petulance (we’ve seen a few of those), the UK opted not to take part. Instead, it created a rival ‘Turing’ scheme that it said would allow students to venture across the world rather than merely be confined to the EU. 

Turing has been a failure. An official review of the new scheme published in January found that four out of five universities had difficulties with the application process, while some students were forced to drop out because of delays, and others didn’t receive their funding in time. 

In classic Brexit fashion, the problems with Turing have disproportionately impacted poorer students who don’t have the resources to fund their studies abroad while the government figures out how to reimburse them. 

Though the creation of “global Britain” was one of the great promises of Brexit, our country now has a much smaller window to the world. We have barely signed any meaningful trade deals, our diplomatic clout has been diminished, and our ability to move freely has been impaired. 

This was the fundamental paradox of Brexit. We were promised access to glittering new opportunities in exciting places, while populist politicians told us to fear different people and shadowy, malign outside influences. 

So, while young people want to explore and learn and travel, Sunak instead wants them to polish a gun, shave their hair, and sing the national anthem. 

Erasmus epitomised one of the greatest benefits of our partnership with the EU. At little cost, it allowed students to become smarter, more culturally aware, and more comfortable with the world outside the British Isles. Students came home with new economic and intellectual prospects, all of which benefitted Britain. 

Erasmus was a national investment in young people. Sunak’s national service plan has the opposite intention.

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