The future of a much-cherished and respected training and cultural programme is at serious risk. 

Thousands of participants from Scotland have taken part in Erasmus+ over the last 30 years. In some cases, it has changed their lives. 

The EU-wide European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, to give it its full name, allows students, young people, adult learners, sports clubs, schools and community groups to travel abroad to learn, work and grow. 

Participants spend an average of three to five months in another European country, free of charge. 

For many, it has proved an invaluable cultural and professional experience.

Ask any Scottish university or college lecturer who has experienced returning Erasmus students, and they talk of newfound confidence, which often translates into much improved performance.

They will also tell you how classrooms and workplaces welcoming Erasmus-funded Europeans here are greatly enriched by the experience of having new faces from different cultures and backgrounds joining them. 

Look closely at participation numbers, and you quickly realise how successful and popular Erasmus has been, particularly north of the Border.

More than half of British university students who study abroad now do so through the scheme – but proportionally more students from a Scottish universities take part than from any other country in the UK. 

Erasmus figures show €90.7 million (approximately £76.5 million) of funding was awarded to Scottish participants between 2014 and 2018 alone. 

Nearly 14,000 Scottish-based individuals signed up in that four-year period, and 844 projects in Scotland benefited from their involvement in the scheme.

The economic knock-on has also been significant.

Figures calculated by the London School of Economics suggest each EU student coming here is assumed to spend £5,500 during their stay.

Erasmus became Erasmus+ in 2014, by expanding its reach to include trainees, non-university students, teachers, and other community groups – allowing even more people to experience life in another part of Europe.

So, you might sensibly think that, regardless of Brexit, Erasmus+ and the bounty of opportunities it presents has to continue?

Don’t be so sure.

The UK’s part in this flagship scheme is under serious threat after Westminster MPs voted on January 8 [344 to 254] against a clause to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill that would have mandated the UK Government to seek full membership of the programme.

No.10 insists all options are “still open” on Britain’s  future participation. 

In a statement, the UK Government has said the current academic relationship with the EU – including through the next Erasmus+ programme – will continue post-Brexit, but with the vague caveat, “if it is in our interests to do so”.

That resounding House of Commons rejection raises the real prospect that the door to this crucial scheme will be slammed shut.

With Britain scheduled to leave the EU this week, the Brexit transition period does, at least, guarantee our place in Erasmus+ until the end of the year. 

Universities UK is calling on the UK Government to commit to continued funding through its Support Study Abroad campaign, whether via Erasmus or a new national scheme.

But a report from the House of Lords’ EU Committee has red-flagged that the benefits of Erasmus would be very difficult to duplicate within a national programme, that vocational education and training would lose out significantly, and that leaving the programme would, in its words, “disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities”.

That doesn’t even touch on the huge scope, scale and prestige that participation in Erasmus represents.

Jane Racz, UK National Agency Director for Erasmus, has told BBC News that the programme has delivered and continues to deliver significant benefits to the UK, and that we must ensure the positives of the programme are not lost.

Those are my thoughts exactly. 

There have been a lot of passionate words written expressing the disappointment felt by many that no plans are in place on the future of Erasmus.

We want the whole of the UK to remain part of it, and we continue to make this case strongly to the UK Government in frequent discussions. 

In these discussions our officials are trying to ensure the wishes of the many interested in taking part in future, and the massive role Scotland plays in the programme, are taken into account.

However, I’d like to assure all those who are considering applying for the programme that if the UK Government decides not to continue participation, we will be exploring the possibility of Scotland associating unilaterally. 

We were instrumental in the creation of Erasmus and we have been at its centre ever since. 

Scotland is an outward-looking, welcoming nation – traits at the very heart of the spirit of the programme. 

We must continue to cherish Erasmus and we will do our utmost to ensure the opportunities it offers remain in place.

Richard Lochhead is Scotland’s Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science