Is the end of Erasmus Nigh?

While working in Leicester University I had a few classes teaching Erasmus students.These were always an interesting change from a lot of the other EAP classes we used to teach and although the students could be a bit challenging at times, they were a memorable bunch of students. I was a shocked earlier this year to see “Erasmus” trending on twitter and a large number of accounts mourning the (imminent) loss of the program. But are Eramsus’ days really numbered? Here is Dan Jones from the University of Leicester to try to explain what’s going on.

For the last two years I’ve had a Google Alert set up for the combined key words of Brexit and Erasmus. Every so often, but not too often, I get a ping telling me about a Brexit/Erasmus news story. I’ve learnt that either the Google Alert algorithm or the UK government isn’t working. I get surprisingly few pings. 

If you’re not familiar with Erasmus, here’s the quickest of summaries. Firstly, as an acronym it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s the EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Students can select up to 4 modules a semester, basically the same ones as the undergraduate students but they can choose from across departments. Some come for just a semester and some for the whole academic year (yes all seven months of it). We currently have students from Spain, France, Germany and Italy. The outbound British students get all the attention in the UK press (as we’ll see a lot of them grow up to be journalists), but the other half of the story is the students from other EU countries who come to study in the UK. 

It’s centrally funded through the EU and runs in 7-year blocks. The current one ends this year and therefore the UK can’t keep putting off signing up for 2021-2027 much longer. Each 7 years has seen the budget and remit expand. The current programme’s budget is 14.7 billion euros. The new programme is notable for its budget of 30 billion euros.

The UK’s involvement may now come to an end. What follows is a short Brexit story where nothing very much happens.

From 24th June 2016 until December 2018 nothing very much happened. In universities, the plan was ‘wait and see’. The government offered to underwrite the current programme, which was nice, but nobody believed them, so universities had to give their own separate guarantees (e.g and e.g.).

The government advice on Erasmus up until 8th December 2018 started with “A scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without agreement (a ‘no deal’ scenario) remains unlikely given the mutual interests of the UK and the EU in securing a negotiated outcome.” By December, it became clear that the May strategy of running down the clock and calling everyone’s bluff was a long shot and wasn’t going to work. Without making a fuss, on the 23rd December 2018, a civil servant updated the advice to “Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed. However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no deal scenario.”

Just to repeat: NOTHING HAS CHANGED 

At a government level it wasn’t clear what preparing for every eventuality actually meant. But by January 2019 it meant hanging the universities out to dry “UK organisations may wish to consider bilateral arrangements with partner organisations that would enable their projects to continue.”

At a university level, all they could do was publish a reassuring strategy statement (e.g), but as everyone was fond of saying you can’t start doing new deals until you’ve left the old one. At a course planning level, how exactly do you prepare for every eventuality? Do you both plan and not plan all the modules, allocate and not allocate hours to teachers, book and not book rooms? So we decided to wait and see. 

This period of limbo gave journalists the opportunity to reflect on what the UK might lose. This and this being the most recent. Essential elements are 1) Facebook just reminded me I was an Erasmus student. 2) I had a lot of fun, 3) That was the year I found myself, 4) It wasn’t all about the drinking. 

From my experience of hungover and sleep-deprived students, there’s some truth to the partying aspect. I can’t say about the finding yourself. But as all these articles quite rightly go on to say, Erasmus students get to experience living somewhere else, and from an academic point of view, they get to study modules at degree level outside of their specialisation. Our Shakespeare and literature modules are taken by students from all academic backgrounds. We have students doing a TESOL module who had previously not given a thought to teaching, let alone teaching English (though admittedly, that doesn’t sound too different to the usual route into teaching English). 

If you were in the UK in 2019 you won’t need reminding that, politically, it went a bit mad. In the run up to the original Brexit deadline of 29th March, El Pais was reporting that Spanish universities were discouraging their students from applying to the UK. At my university, 20% of our Erasmus students are from Spain. But otherwise it was more ‘wait and see’. 

A survey published in April 2019 of prospective students painted a more complex picture. When asked about whether they were more or less likely to study in the UK due to Brexit, 36% of EU students were less interested, 6% more interested. For non-EU international students it’s 10% less interested and 14% more interested. The proportion of ‘more interested’ might seem surprising, but it seems that some students see that a weakened UK pound will give them more spending power and a weakened UK HE will give students more leverage in getting into a higher ranked programme and university. 

Of course it’s the majority in the middle that are neither more nor less interested and fortunately they just carried on as usual, and when we got to the start of term, the numbers held up quite well. We even have Spanish students. The El Pais article was either inaccurate or the students ignored the advice. For most students, the only thing that will stop them applying is taking down the application form. 

In November 2019 Universities UK published “A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT: IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITIES AND MINIMISING RISK” They left the caps lock on as it’s directed at the government and it’s full of specific advice on what should be done. After years of vague technical notices, this is refreshingly readable (for a report on education policy). 

Over the last week, there’s been a bit more pinging from my Google Alert than usual. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats tabled an Erasmus amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill. And when it was inevitably voted down, it was reported in the most pessimistic terms: U.K. Parliament Vote Casts Doubt On Future Of Erasmus Study Abroad Scheme and Fears over future for Erasmus international student exchange scheme after Brexit. (This second of these has this great celeb filler: “Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded disgraceful”. Well if EL James says it’s disgraceful…). But as each of these reports goes on to concede, this doesn’t actually mean anything. With the exception of last year’s madness, opposition amendments don’t get voted for by the government.

In fact, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, saying we’ll probably stay in but if we don’t then we’ll make our own, at least suggests an engagement with the issue. It does raise the question, why would you make your own when there’s a perfectly good one that we’re already using? But it’s not unprecedented, Switzerland withdrew from Erasmus in 2015 as part of a move to limit immigration. The result was the Swiss-European Mobility programme.

At this point I’m as miserable as the next person on this rain sodden island, but I seem to be a bit more optimistic about Erasmus. Once we get past 31st January I think there will be a flurry of mini deals and Erasmus will be one of them. And anyway my most recent Google Alert tells me that Boris Johnson has just said flat out, we’re staying in Erasmus. Now, if we can’t trust the Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government then who can we trust?

Why there is not, and will never be, a ‘fifth skill’

My first teaching job was working at GEOS. The GEOS method was ingenious. First you present the daily grammar target, then students practice it then you do some kind of role play. It wasn’t until I started my MA that I realised that this method hadn’t in fact been dreamed up by the geniuses at GEOS. It was PPP!

I first became aware of Jason Andersons writing when I saw his piece on PPP in ELTJ. As I read the article and the posts that accompanied it, I really enjoyed the level of detail Anderson went into.
 He is someone who can really do a deep dive on a subject, see for example his recent piece on the origin on Jigsaws and information gaps

Jason is one of those people who seems to have produced 5 papers while other people are thinking about writing one. He has written several books and has a very long list of papers and talks to his name with subjects from Translanguaging to teaching large classes. 

Jason Anderson @jasonelt
Teacher educator and researcher:

Visit Jason’s blog here.

Google the term “fifth skill” and you’ll find numerous references, mainly from (English) language teaching communities, including blogs, talks and even articles in academic journals. The range of things offered forward as ‘the fifth skill’ is extensive, including:
  • translation (e.g., Janulevičienė & Kavaliauskienė, 2002)
  • grammaring (e.g., Larsen-Freeman, 2001)
  • culture (e.g., Hong, 2008)
  • cultural competence (e.g., Kramsch, 1993)
  • intercultural awareness and language learning (Pulverness, 1999)
  • viewing (e.g., Donaghy, 2019)
  • retelling (e.g., Burns, 2005)

And recently even Mario Rinvolucri (2019) joined the ‘fifth skill’ club, proposing… inner monologue. Doh! It seems so obvious now he’s said it. Reference to the fifth skill even shows up on a Google Ngram search (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Google Ngram showing frequency of ‘the four skills’ and ‘the fifth skill’. From Copyright 2018, Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Yet, in this (hopefully humorous) blog post, I’m going to argue that they’re all wrong to suggest that X is the fifth skill. First and foremost, if any one of these writers is going to argue that their choice IS the fifth skill, they either have to be ignorant of the numerous prior attempts to offer a fifth skill (which suggests incompetence), or they are dismissing the others as wrong, yet without justifying why (which suggests complacency). They can’t all be the fifth skill, can they?

The point I’d like to make is not that they are wrong to suggest that the specific skill that they are talking about is important – I’m sure that they all are, even inner monologue (how many times has ‘inner karaoke’ saved you from boredom?). There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of identifiably discrete skills involved in learning of any kind, and within this, the learning of languages.
The point is a very simple one. The reason why some of us still talk about ‘the four skills’, sometimes called the “foundational language skills” (Hinkel, 2006, p. 110), is not because we’re so stupid that we haven’t realised that there might be other skills involved in language learning, it’s because we are referring to a matrix of two dichotomous categorical variables that enable us to describe how we use language for communication, what Candlin and Widdowson (1987) call “modes of behaviour”. Any instance of language behaviour, or if you prefer, communicative  language ‘use’ (i.e., excluding entirely internal processes such as inner monologue) involves, on a fundamental level, one of two channels, the written or the spoken channel, and on an individual level, one of two directions – reception (we see or hear something) or production (we utter or write something). That makes 2×2 which equals? You got it, four. See Table 1 – hopefully it’s familiar.
Table 1: Where exactly would you put the fifth skill?

Within each of the four quadrants there are numerous discrete and fuzzy skills, both those things often labelled sub-skills, and many others besides, and there are broader skills that link these four skills together, such as translation. Behind this two-dimensional table there are numerous other cognitive skills that necessarily support and manage acts of communicative language use. And in the beautiful, messy, complex world that is social interaction we are able to use two or more of these skills simultaneously (in conversation, for example). There are also, of course, many other, interpersonal and multimodal skills that accompany our languaging acts. But that doesn’t make any of them ‘the’ fifth skill.
Analysed synthetically at the simplest meaningful level there is no act of language use possible that isn’t unambiguously categorizable within the matrix of the four skills. What I am doing now. What your eyes are doing now. What your speech organs might do if you don’t like this blog, and what the person near to you might do with the sound waves entering their ear to cause them to take offence. That’s why we talk about the four skills. So no, you can’t add another one. Sorry.
Burns, D. E. (2005). Your story, my story, history. In Tomlinson, C. A. et al. (Eds.) The parallel curriculum in the classroom, Book 2: Units for Application across the content areas, K-12 (pp. 5-56). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Candlin, C. N. & Widdowson, H. (1987). Language teaching: A scheme for teacher education (preface). In Bygate, M. Speaking (pp. ix-x). Oxford: OUP.
Donaghy, K. (2019). Advancing learning: The fifth skill – ‘viewing’. [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Hinkel, E. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching the four skills. Tesol Quarterly, 40(1), 109-131.
Hong, S. (2008). The Role of Heritage students in incorporating culture into language Teaching. South Asia Language Pedagogy and Technology, 1, 1-10.
Janulevičienė, V., & Kavaliauskienė, G. (2002). Promoting the fifth skill in teaching ESP. English for Specific Purposes World, 1(2), 1-6.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: OUP.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
Pulverness, A. (1999). The fifth skill-intercultural awareness and language learning. British Studies Now: Anthology Issues, 2, 6-10.
Rinvolucri, M. (2019). On my mind. IATEFL Voices, 272, 19.