When I first took office and became the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Education in the European Parliament one thing I spotted was a tremendous opportunity to help raise awareness of educational opportunities available in the EU as part of the Erasmus+ Programme. Erasmus traditionally has been a platform through which university students can study in other EU member state. But, since 2014, it also provides apprenticeship placements although, so far, opportunities for apprentices to work abroad have been modest. This is about the change.
The Manifesto for a Europe of Apprentices, published this year by the Renew Group, the political group in which Liberal Democrat MEPs sit, describes how the Culture and Education committee (CULT) is expanding opportunities for apprenticeships in Eramsus+ by virtue of introducing something called ErasmusPRO. This ‘PRO’ extension of the project not only adds language support to all apprentice placements, but also extends them to 6-12 months, giving apprentices time to fully immerse themselves in new cultures. This is a fantastic scheme for everyone who benefits from a hands-on, vocational approach to learning.
The tragedy here, of course, is that the young people in Britain who could benefit from ErasmusPRO may be unable to do so if we leave the EU. May’s Deal pledged further funding for Erasmus+ involvement, but do we really trust Johnson’s to do the same?. More tragic, still, is that the estimated two million of today’s youngsters were unable to vote in the 2016 referendum. This is grossly unjust. The lack of representation for anyone between 18 and 21 years old on the matter of Brexit is a failure on the part of us all. It is their future that is at stake. Should they not be granted a democratic voice?
With this in mind, my team and I set about inviting young apprentices from the South East of England, (my constituency), to come to Brussels to gain an insight into opportunities available to them through ErasmusPRO. We joined forces with Lucy Nethsinga MEP, from the East of England, and over the course of their two-day stay the two groups were given talks by myself and my a liberal Democrat MEP colleagues, Lucy, and Sheila Ritchie, who represents the interests of Scotland. We also heard from Ben Butters, Deputy CEO of Eurochambres, who champions the engagement of apprentices and young entrepreneurs across the EU.
The response of our group to the opportunities that they heard about was fantastic. Teya, an Apprentice Clinical Trial Support Officer, spoke of how much she enjoyed being able to network with other apprentices and MEPs as well as to seek advice and guidance for her own career. Ajay, an Apprentice Business Administrator, told us how glad she was to hear about how EU member states work alongside one another, while Alexandra, an HR Apprentice, spoke fondly about being given the chance to network with people she otherwise would not have had the chance to meet, while also finding about the opportunities provided by ErasmusPRO.
I am confident that our visitors now have a better idea of what’s available to them in Europe. I hope they can go home and tell their friends, their colleagues, their younger brothers and sisters about all the different pathways that are open to them. ErasmusPRO symbolises all that is great about the EU and, most importantly, ensures young people are prepared for a world in which business is done increasingly on a global level.
In March of this year, the European Parliament voted to triple funds for Erasmus+ for 2021 to 2027, which of course means more funding for ErasmusPRO. This was a proposal brought to budget negotiations by CULT, where I now sit. This is the joy of being part of the EU. As a British member on CULT, I have the chance to support proposals like this which can bring so much benefit to youngsters in the UK. For instance, in September this year we approved additional funding of €100 [£86] million for European research and youth mobility programmes, including Erasmus+.
The ramifications of Brexit for estimated two million young people who have come of age since 2016, are huge. By point-blank refusing to hold another referendum – a Final Say, a People’s Vote, a confirmatory vote, I don’t mind what you call it, so long as it is a vote on an explicit and defined Brexit deal – by refusing such a vote, the current government is failing the young people of Britain. It is more their future we are talking about, than mine or (probably) yours, and were Brexit to go ahead, incalculable opportunities will be denied.
As part of the EU, we MEPs have the ability to provide youngsters with more funding, placements long enough to integrate new skills, and the opportunity to live, learn and love in 27 other countries, yet a huge number of apprentices are being given no say in the matter whatsoever. The injustice is as infuriating as it is heart-breaking.
Looking at the current situation, From 2014 to 2018, almost 5,000 grants Erasmus+ grants were awarded to UK organisations, 4,846 students taking the chance to live and learn abroad. In 2019 alone, €187 million [£162] was specifically reserved for UK educational and youth organisations. With triple the funding, and extending the scheme to include longer placements for apprentices, can you begin to imagine the number of young people whose lives we could change for the better? Can you imagine the number of lives we could embolden by providing them with the means to immerse themselves in new cultures, learn new languages and pick up the necessary skills to thrive in the international marketplace? Can you see how this would massively help to resolve the skills gaps in the UK, with the kinds of inspirational, productive learners that programmes like Erasmus+ and ErasmusPRO will produce? I can, and that is why I am resolute in my belief that by leaving the EU, we are damaging not only our children’s futures, but also our country’s.
The young people of the UK deserve better. They deserve our trust.
The apprentices I met who came over to Brussels, the young professionals I march alongside in support of a People’s Vote and the students I meet in my constituency are every bit as intelligent, curious, passionate as the adults who voted for the UK to leave.
We must not fall into the trap of assuming that age and years of life experience guarantees effective decision-making any more than youth guarantees innovation. This is not about championing one group of voices over another, but about ensuring all voices are heard and respected.
We need a People’s Vote because we need our young people, on whose shoulders the future of this great country rests, to have a say.