Thousands of students who take part in the Erasmus Plus student exchange programme in Europe could be affected by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

The programme allows students to study in one of 33 European countries for free for up to a year with the costs being met by the EU. But if Britain is no longer part of the EU it is unclear if UK-based students will be able to access the programme for free or if students from other countries will be able to study in the UK.

The Scottish Government has called for clarity as figures show that the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow were the top scheme users in 2014, the most up to date figures, with 462 and 460 Erasmus students respectively.

Under the scheme participating universities waive their fees and the EU pays for travel and living expenses. It is regarded as one of the biggest sources of funding for studying abroad and more than 200,000 students have benefited from the scheme since it was launched in 1987.

Brexit has put the £112 million Erasmus programme in doubt. ‘It is not clear at this early stage what the impact of the recent UK vote to leave the EU will have on the Erasmus Programme. Definitive answers on the programme’s future, particularly in relation to UK students and Universities, may take time,’ said an Erasmus spokesman.

‘There is no immediate change to the UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme following the EU referendum result and the UK National Agency will continue to manage and deliver the programme across the UK. All participants and beneficiaries should continue with their Erasmus funded activities,’ the spokesman added.

The British Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, said the referendum result does not affect students currently studying in the EU or those considering applying in 2017. ‘The UK’s future access to the Erasmus programme will be determined as a part of wider discussions with the EU. Existing UK students studying in the EU, and those looking to start in the next academic year, will continue to be subject to current arrangements,’ he explained.

However, the Erasmus programme’s leaders fear it will not be top of the list during Brexit negotiations. ‘We do really want there to be prioritisation on the Erasmus Plus because it is important, it has a direct impact on the students and the economy,’ said its director, Ruth Sinclair-Jones, who is based at the British Council.

She pointed out that it is a hugely popular scheme in the UK and oversubscribed by a factor of two to one. She argued the economic benefits were tangible for the UK in terms of future employability.

According to the European commission’s Erasmus impact study in 2014, young people who study or train abroad are twice as likely to find employment quickly. The study of 80,000 students showed that the unemployment rates among Erasmus students was 23% lower after five years than for students who did not study abroad.

James Dornan, convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, said the UK Government should state its commitment to retaining the programme. ‘The Erasmus programme has been hugely beneficial to our universities and students over the years. It is critically important that the UK Government makes a commitment to protect this scheme,’ he said.

‘Our students also benefit massively from the opportunity to take a year abroad in Europe, giving them the chance to experience new cultures and ways of learning, whilst becoming more open to different ways of life,’ he added.