Why the Erasmus grant is essential

One potential and very serious consequence of Brexit is the abolition of the Erasmus grant which supports British students, who seek to broaden their language and cultural horizons by spending a semester or a year abroad in a European country, learning a foreign language.

I am currently on my year abroad working as a teaching assistant or an ‘auxiliar de conversación’ in a primary school in Madrid. This is part of my English Language and Spanish degree programme from the University of Birmingham.

My year abroad has provided me with an enriched outlook on life, one that no textbook could ever provide. Not only has Erasmus allowed me to work abroad in Spain and integrate with Spaniards but it has also given me the opportunity to meet other students who have travelled to study or work in Madrid. From Canadians, South Americans and Eastern Europeans, I often find myself thinking that these people I’m meeting, from Ecuador, Argentina, Germany and Russia etc. are the first people I have ever met from those countries. Living with, socialising among and talking to these new friends, with their many international traits is fascinating, eye-opening and fun.

English remains the common language spoken among Erasmus students, but I am still taken aback when speaking to other students, for whom Spanish is their third and sometimes fourth spoken language.

In comparison, the number of foreign language students is diminishing in the UK. This, of course, is of no surprise when there is no compulsory language teaching in primary and secondary schools in the UK, which is embarrassingly deficient when compared to countries just twenty-six miles away. 

How impressive it is to hear foreign football players and managers give interviews in fluent English after just a short while in this country. Compare that with Gareth Bale’s reported hesitant spoken Spanish after six years living in Spain.

One of the fantastic people I’ve met whilst being in Madrid is a young woman called Emmanuela, from Amsterdam. She spoke English with total perfection and was fluent in Dutch and Spanish. We went for a meal in an Italian pizza restaurant and there she, completely spontaneously, started speaking Italian to the waiter. If there’s one thing which can inspire lethargic language students, it’s listening to our European friends, for whom learning languages is considered as important as learning sports.

In an ever-saturated graduate jobs market, we are told from the moment we write our UCAS forms to ‘differentiate’, ‘diversify your CV’ and ‘stand out from the crowd’. What better way to do so than by learning a language, a multifaceted skill which is so useful in life? The benefits are endless, from enhanced career prospects, to building a network of worldwide contacts, increased confidence and the ability to overcome challenges, a year abroad is so advantageous I only wish it had become a virtual rite of passage in the UK’s university system.

The danger of losing the Erasmus support is that year abroad opportunities will become the reserve of the wealthy, upper middle-class families who can afford to financially support their offspring. The year could become an optional, expensive extra at the end of a language course, rather than an integral part in the middle.

Brits wishing they’d learnt a language is a broken record. Imagine a veterinary student denied the opportunity to work with animals, or a nurse who is denied the chance to work in a hospital?

A year abroad forms a compulsory part of a language degree. 75% of my overall degree mark is taken from my final year, so much is the value the university places on a year abroad.

I was nervous about coming abroad to live for the year. I am somewhat of a home bird, and instinctively risk averse.

However, five months in to my year in Madrid and I’m not just surviving but I’m thriving, conversing fluently in Spanish, and reaping the benefits of living in this fantastic city I have come to know so well. I have become an integrated madrileña in the golden metropolis of Spain’s capital city and I can only hope other students get to experience the wonders of a year abroad like I have.

Roseanna Conway

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