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Will Britain’s replacement for an EU student scheme make the grade?

The jury is out on Britain’s scheme to help students study overseas

Image: The New European

When Boris Johnson was asked about the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ exchange programme, he hemmed and hawed about a “tough decision” before switching gears to his perky get-things-done voice and declaring: “So, what we’re doing is producing a UK scheme for students to go around the world … because we want our young people to experience the immense intellectual stimulation of Europe but also of the whole world.”

And so the Turing Scheme, named after the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing, was launched in 2021. A year on, around 40,000 British students have used the £110m programme to travel abroad to study or intern. But observers say it’s still too early – and too soon after the upheaval caused by the Covid pandemic – to say whether the Turing Scheme is doing what the government said it would: providing better value for money and refocusing education on Global Britain. 

What we do know is that Turing does not match Erasmus+ in terms of scale, scope or guaranteed multi-year funding. Another major difference is that tuition fees were waived under Erasmus+ and that is not the case under the UK alternative, although the government says it expects institutions to do just that. There is also no funding under Turing for students coming into the UK to study. 

“The basis of Erasmus is that it is an exchange. Turing also works on the principle of an exchange but it only applies to students going out. Exchanges are very difficult to set up, especially outside the Erasmus framework,” says Paul James Cardwell, a professor of law at King’s College London, and someone who has set up many student exchanges during his career.

“If you do it outside, you have to do it bespoke every time and that’s very time-consuming and there’s less of a guarantee of success. It can work but I’m skeptical we’ll reach the same level of opportunities in a short time.”

While Turing provides funding for education, training and work placements, Erasmus+ – a programme originally set up for student exchanges in 1987 – now covers inward and outward education, training, and work exchanges; staff development and exchanges; organisation improvement programmes; youth opportunities; and sport.

It is true that the Turing scheme has a broader geographical reach, in theory, than Erasmus+ as students can also travel to institutions outside Europe. However, it is also true that some institutions in popular destinations, like Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, already have agreements with UK partners and are unlikely to have capacity to set up more.

“There’s all kinds of countries it would be great to send students to but it would take a lot of effort and you’d need a lot of knowledge about the situation there in order to make sure it’s a worthwhile educational experience for incoming and outgoing students, and to make sure you’re able to fulfill a duty of care to them as well,” Cardwell said. 

An April research paper on the Turing Scheme for the House of Commons library also noted that there were concerns that the decision not to fund students to come to the UK would mean fewer students would study here, with negative economic and cultural consequences.

“According to an external evaluator for Erasmus+, the decision not to fund inward mobilities might also affect the willingness of schools to host pupils from England, since the Turing Scheme would not cover a reciprocal visit,”  the paper said. 

Johnson’s government says the new scheme will help disadvantaged students more than Erasmus+ did with 48% of participants in the past year coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the Labour party has said this claim is undermined by the fact that the scheme provides no support to cover tuition fees. 

There are also concerns about the management of Turing. In March, outsourcing and professional services company Capita took over from the British Council, which had helped administer the Erasmus scheme since 2007 and Erasmus+ since 2014. The University and College Union (UCU), which represents more than 130,000 academics and lecturers, condemned the decision. 

“Outsourcing the scheme to Capita, who have a shocking record of failure on a range of other government contracts, is a terrible decision from the Department for Education which will further diminish the quality of student exchange programmes,” said UCU General Secretary Jo Grady when the decision was announced last December.

“The British Council has important expertise in the running of student exchanges, and cutting them out of the process in favour of a profit-making private company is shameful. The Turing Scheme is still finding its feet, and the priority must be delivering quality for students, not a race to the bottom. This continued, ideological outsourcing drive from the Tories is bad for students and bad for ordinary people.”

In an article for the Brexit Spotlight website, Luke Cooper, a senior research fellow at LSE IDEAS, broke down the differences between the Turing Scheme and Erasmus+ by analysing the funding support as a whole; funding for individual students and trainees; the geographical scope of the schemes; and funding for educators to pursue collaborative partnerships. 

In terms of overall funding, Cooper found that in 2019, the UK received €144.7m from Erasmus+, compared to the £110m allocated to the Turing scheme for 2021/22. What’s more, Erasmus+ has radically increased its funding from 2021-2027 to €26.2bn, a jump of 56%.

Cooper noted that Turing funding for higher education students is similar to Erasmus+ while the funding for further and vocational education students was actually better under Turing. However, a big disadvantage is that Turing does not provide funds for collaborative international education partnerships and projects. Under Erasmus+, the UK received €56.6m in grants for such projects in 2019.

“All of that funding is now gone and that’s a real shame. It’s basically the UK indicating that it doesn’t want to participate in international programmes to improve the quality and research basis of education across the continent,” Cooper said. 

Overall Cooper concluded that while the Turing scheme has merit, it is not a benefit of Brexit. 

“There’s nothing inherently bad about having this global Turing Scheme,” Cooper tells me. “On paper, it looks pretty good but that could have been done on top of participation in Erasmus+,” he says, noting that the UK could have tagged on an international element on top of its existing membership to offer more global opportunities for study. 

Another obstacle to assessing the efficacy of the Turing Scheme so far is the fact that some unused Erasmus+ funds were also still available to UK institutions over the past year. 

Despite this lack of definitive data, this does seem to be another case of fixing something that wasn’t broken in the first place. There had been hope that Erasmus+ would survive the Brexit fallout, with Johnson insisting in January 2020 that there was no threat to the programme. But in the end, the government said continued membership would not provide value for money, calculating a net cost of around £2bn over a seven-year period.

As with the damage done by Brexit to British language schools and the UK’s standing as a research leader because of the failure to ratify its membership of Horizon Europe, the fear is that the withdrawal from Erasmus+ will mean British universities will become intellectually poorer because European students may be deterred by the lack of guaranteed fee waivers. 

“When we were an EU member, universities couldn’t charge EU students the international fees that are charged to non-EU students. Now universities can charge EU students international fees. So that’s a very big change and it’s going to potentially impact the number of EU students coming to the UK,” Cooper said, noting that individual universities could choose whether to actually do this. 

For example, at his institution, the LSE, the UK tuition fee is £9,250. But for an overseas undergraduate that shoots up to £23,330 per year.“ This is going to really shake up British universities,” he says.

Cardwell says there will also be a price to pay in loss of soft power. 

“It was very evident during the Brexit process that you have a generation of Europeans in institutions who did Erasmus …  and have a fondness or love for the UK. The risk is that longer term that won’t happen as much; people will still come but as a tourist you don’t get the same depth of understanding. So from an education point of view, unless Turing is a success and unless the numbers are maintained in terms of incoming people then yes, unfortunately, it is going to be students who lose out,” he said.

Looking beyond student exchanges, some youth organisations are also feeling the pinch as they used to receive Erasmus+ funds. For example, the British Youth Council says it has lost money that helped young people develop new skills, gain vital international experience and boost their employability. It says these opportunities must be guaranteed in post-Brexit Britain and wants the government to make up the shortfall. 

In essence, the loss of Erasmus+ seems to be another example of the great diminishing power of Brexit, despite all government rhetoric to the contrary. 

“‘Global Britain’’ is a nice phrase. In a way it’s a nice description of what the UK is at its best, when it did attract people from all over the world to come and live here. Brexit, insofar as it has any impact, makes us less global almost by definition, from our immigration to our education,” said Cooper. “We are becoming much more insular and we will become less cosmopolitan as a result.”

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