The Past, Present and Future of Student Exchange Between the UK and Europe

Alice Byrne, Aix Marseille Université, LERMA, OREMA, Aix-en-Provence, France 

In recent weeks, universities across Europe have been welcoming students coming to study for a year or just a semester as part of the Erasmus programme. Given the continued uncertainty over Brexit, it is possible that these students will be the last ones to benefit from the UK’s membership of the programme. The UK was one of the eleven founding members when the scheme launched in 1987 and remains in the top five in terms of overall student numbers (incoming and outgoing).[i] Yet the UK’s participation is characterised by the fact that it receives twice as many students as it sends. In 2016-2017, only 9,615 UK students travelled to a partner university through Erasmus compared to 29,851 French students. Although the overall number of outgoing UK students has increased since 2009 this is largely due the growing number of trainees benefitting from the programme; the number of students going to study in an EU university has remained relatively constant. The problem is not new: a 2006 study confirmed that UK students’ mobility to Europe was decreasing while mobility to other English-speaking regions of the world was on the increase.[ii] Unsurprisingly, lack of foreign language skills was a major factor and the continued decline of modern language studies in the UK can be expected to have exacerbated this trend. Yet if we look back to the interwar period and the origins of British involvement in student exchange programmes, it becomes apparent that this imbalance is not a new phenomenon. Focusing on this period also illustrates how and why the British government first began to concern itself with this issue.

Although students have travelled between universities across Europe since medieval times, the institutionalization of scholarships is a relatively recent phenomenon.[iii] One of the most famous examples is surely the Rhodes Scholarship, founded in 1902, which brought students from the British empire, the USA and Germany to study at Oxford University. Even though the Harkness Fellowships were later created to allow similar opportunities for UK students, Rhodes and other similar schemes were not designed as an exchange with universities swapping students. One of the earliest examples of an attempt to facilitate and systematise student exchange is that set up by the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants (CIE) in the interwar period. The CIE attracted around 350,000 members in the 1920s and styled itself as the “Students’ League of Nations.” The founding members of the CIE were all European and although it expanded to include countries in South America and the British Empire, it remained principally a European and North American body.[iv] 

The creation of the CIE in 1919 reflected the development of both national bodies representing students and post-World War One internationalism. In the UK, the creation of the National Union of Students in 1922 was given impetus by the need to create a body capable of representing English and Welsh students in the CIE (Scotland already had its own student organisation).[v] Beyond the desire to ensure a British presence in this new international student movement, the founding members were driven to develop opportunities for student travel and exchange as a result of their experience in World War One. Writing in the early 1930s, the NUS secretary, Ralph Nunn May, described this generation composed largely of ex-servicemen as follows:

They knew war and they hated it. That gave them what to-day we call an international bias. And, while they hated war, they valued one thing the war had given them – experience of a foreign country and a foreign people. The war had meant many things, most of them best forgotten. But among them had been travel, and that, had been worthwhile.[vi] 

The principles of what Akira Iriye has termed cultural internationalism, and in particular the belief that direct contact between peoples and knowledge of foreign cultures would lead to mutual understanding and therefore peace, were thus at the heart of the NUS’s mission.[vii]

The system of student exchanges overseen by the CIE consisted in fact of a network of bilateral exchanges organised by national student unions. In practice they were largely oriented towards language students in Europe, who encountered two principal obstacles: lack of funds and accommodation. The exchange programme sought to resolve the second of these by pairing up students from different countries whose families agreed to host the visiting student. The student unions acted almost like marriage brokers, finding suitable exchange partners of “desirable character and aimable disposition.” The NUS’s application form asked students to specify their age, sex and the subjects they studied but also to provide information about their religion, the games they played and their family environment, including the father’s occupation and the number of servants employed.[viii] 

From the beginnings of this exchange programme, the NUS was attentive to the needs of foreign students wishing to come to the UK. It found itself at times being called in to help au pairs who found themselves being exploited and tried to regulate the flow of such students by working with British diplomatic missions overseas through the British Council. Developing student exchanges was also a way of finding an alternative for “men students” and “those without domestic inclinations.” Even in the interwar period there was wide demand from foreign students wishing to come to the UK to learn English yet who struggled to find suitable accommodation. Reciprocity was an ideal – in that mutual exchange was perceived as holding the key to international understanding – but was also pursued for pragmatic reasons as it offered greater security for outgoing students too. The asymmetrical nature of the demand for student exchanges risked posing a problem to members of the NUS in the long-term, warned the organisation:

If English students continue to debar foreign students from sharing the opportunities they themselves enjoy for study abroad we fear that Tuition Visit invitations from the continent will be issued in rapidly decreasing numbers – as the present position is already causing fairly general dissatisfaction.[ix]

In addition to running the British side of the exchange programme, the NUS organised educational student tours to various countries. The success of these tours was often dependent on the involvement of local students and tended to encourage efforts at reciprocity.  For example, in the spring of 1931 the NUS organised a six week trip to London and Cambridge for four Austrian students who had acted as guides to British students on walking and climbing excursions.[x] There was a direct link between its student travel activities and the exchange programme as the NUS used the profits it made from the former to finance the latter. However, the demand for these exchanges was such that the NUS became a victim of its own success. Between 1923 and 1931 the number of applications rose from 212 to 1298. Although only about a third of applications actually resulted in a successful exchange the process was so time consuming and costly that the NUS was forced to suspend its work temporarily.[xi] However, by the mid-1930s the question of student mobility was becoming increasingly politicised and was attracting official interest.

The NUS documents cited above are stored in the archives of the Committee on the Education and Training of Students from Overseas, set up in June 1933. The committee was appointed in response to a number of trade missions which concluded that encouraging international students to come to the UK would ultimately help the UK to compete in export markets in South America and Scandinavia. Since the publication of the Committee’s report coincided with the creation of the British Council, under the aegis of the Foreign Office, the responsibility for implementing the committee’s recommendations fell to this new body. Faced with aggressive fascist and Nazi cultural propaganda but also stiff competition from France, political considerations quickly came to outweigh economic ones. In recognition of the NUS’s work in the field of student exchanges and hospitality, the British Council decided to accord it an annual grant of £500, which not only allowed the Council to benefit from the NUS’s experience and expertise but also relieved it of the need to set up a new, potentially expensive, body.[xii]

Why did the Foreign Office, via the British Council, intervene to support this scheme? Firstly, because the exchange scheme run in collaboration with the CIE was principally European in its orientation whereas existing structures to encourage student mobility were primarily geared towards the Empire.[xiii] UK universities worked extensively with their partners in the Universities Bureau of the Empire, while Empire students were catered for by a number of voluntary societies such as the Victoria League which provided a support network for incoming students.[xiv] European students, however, largely had to fend for themselves. While the British Council spent most of its student budget on bursaries for future teachers of English coming from the regions given priority by the Foreign Office – Northern and South-Eastern Europe and the Middle East – the grant to the NUS supported exchange with a wider range of countries, including France and Germany. Increasing attention would be placed on these countries post-Munich but the outbreak of war precluded the development of a full-blown scheme.[xv]

Secondly, the Foreign Office, the British Council and the National Union of Students shared similar objectives in relation to this exchange programme. Although it was hoped that overseas students would improve their English-language skills at university, to the benefit of all concerned, the UK bodies were just as concerned about the personal experience of these students. It was important that they should come into direct contact with British people and values, and develop genuine friendships, so that they would return home with a sympathetic attitude to the country as a whole. The NUS’s objective of providing a “homely window” rather than a “solitary lodging” or “crowded pavement” from which visiting students could view “England” aligned with the internationalist faith in intercultural contact while also defending British interests. Indeed the NUS explicitly claimed: “There is nothing that we, with our world-wide ramification of Empire and commerce, need more for our continued welfare than the friendly co-operation of other peoples.”[xvi] Unfortunately the UK government’s decision to invest in welcoming international students in the 1930s turned out to be too little, too late.

The beliefs underpinning the FO’s student policy in the interwar period continue to inform discussions as to the importance of student mobility in forging international attitudes and links to the UK in the 21st century.[xvii] Discussions in the UK media tend to focus on how Brexit will affect the mobility of UK students and pay little attention to the question of reciprocity. Whatever the outcome of the latest round of Brexit negotiations, the UK’s relationship with the rest of the EU has been placed under severe strain. It remains to be seen whether the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Universities will be prepared to invest in student exchange programmes as a way to rebuild and reaffirm that relationship.


[i] The latest figures are for 2016:

[ii] Allan Findlay, Russell King, Alexandra Stam, Enric Ruiz-Gelices, “Ever Reluctant Europeans. The Changing Geographies of UK Students Studying and Working Abroad,” European Urban and Regional Studies 13(4): 291–318, 2006.

[iii] Ludovic Tournès & Giles Scott-Smith “A World of Exchanges,” pp. 1-29 in Global Exchanges. Scholarships and Transnational Circulations in the Modern World (New York & Oxford: Berghahn Press, 2018) p. 2.

[iv] Daniel Laqua, ‘Activism in the “Students’ League of Nations”: International Student Politics and the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants, 1919-1939’, The English Historical Review, Volume 132, Issue 556, June 2017, pages 605–637,, pp. 607; 611.

[v] Sarah Hellawell,

[vi] “Methods of giving students an interest in foreign countries and an understanding of their peoples”, Ralph Nunn May, p. 467, National Archives London (TNA) BW 82/1.

[vii] Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 72-3.

[viii] Confédération internationale des étudiants, Bruxelles. “Student Exchanges and Tuition Visits,” TNA BW 82/1.

[ix] “Student Exchanges and Tuition Visits.”

[x] Report of the Hospitality Council, NUS 1932-1933. TNA BW 82/1.

[xi] “Methods of giving students an interest in foreign countries and an understanding of their peoples.”

[xii] Students Committee paper 30, A. J. Sullivan, 20 Oct. 1936 TNA BW 2/19.

[xiii] Report of the Sub-committee on student accommodation and hospitality, A. J. Sullivan, 20 Oct. 1937, TNA BW 2/19.

[xiv] Tamson Pietsch, Empire of Scholars. Universities, networks and the British academic world 1850-1939, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) 156; J. M. Lee, ‘Commonwealth students in the United Kingdom, 1940-1960: student welfare and world status’, Minerva (2006) 44:1-24, DOI 10.1007/s11024-005-5411-x,  4.

[xv] Students Committee of the British Council, TNA BW 2/19 and BW 2/20.

[xvi] Report of the Hospitality Council, NUS 1932-1933, TNA BW 82/1.

[xvii] House of Lords Report on UK Soft Power 2014, pp. 98-99,

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