To the great sadness and disappointment of many, the UK government has foregone its opportunity to associate to the EU’s Erasmus+ programme – marking the end of an unfortunate year where most study abroad placements were curtailed or cancelled, and travelling nationally, let alone internationally, remains a luxury.
This, of course, is a full 360-turn on the Prime Minister’s comments in January 2020, when responding to an opposition MP at Prime Minister’s Questions, he said:
There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, we will continue to participate.
Instead, the PM has enigmatically reaffirmed the government’s commitment, in the recent spending review, to setup a national alternative to Erasmus+ which will allow to students to study and work “around the world”, named after the influential mathematician and WWII codebreaker, Alan Turing.
Although few specifics are presently known about the Turing Scheme, the Department for Education has published preliminary details indicating that it will offer £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021. Gavin Williamson himself has hailed Turing as a chance “to expand opportunities to study abroad and see more students from all backgrounds benefit from the experience.”
It is doubtful that the Turing Scheme could match the success of Erasmus, which is after all, a 33-year-old programme considered by many to be the most positive endeavour to come from the EU. If a new scheme will, as stated by the DfE, “replace the UK’s participation in Erasmus+”, it should address (and quickly) the scheme’s apparent shortcomings if it has a serious intention of achieving what has not been done before – a credible Erasmus contender.
Check out your competition
It is prudent to actually look at Erasmus first. EU leaders recently managed to successfully break the impasse regarding the EU budget for the next 7-years, and this in turn advanced discussions to finalise the next Erasmus+ programme. A political agreement between the European Parliament and Council was agreed, a key step in the process for the programme’s overall adoption into legalisation.
The Parliament and Council agreed to increase the Erasmus+ budget to €26 billion spread over the next 7-years, a substantial increase from the current €14.7 billion. The additional budget will not solely be utilized to further increase the numbers of students who study or work abroad but institutions will be actively encouraged to target funding to support underrepresented students and those who would never have previously thought studying or working abroad was ‘for them’ due to other ongoing commitments.
From a cursory glance, you might be inclined to agree with the Prime Minister that Erasmus+ is “extremely expensive” from these figures and understandable to why the “UK exchequer lost out”. But on closer analysis DfE’s own data on the revenue received through UK educational exports shows receipts from incoming Erasmus students’ living expenses alone amounted to £440 million in 2018 – a figure that has increased 71% since 2010. Offsetting these receipts against the entry cost as a non-EU Erasmus Programme country, the UK receives a net return on far more than it contributes.
Double check your figures
£100 might also first appear to be a sensible investment. The announcement of £100 million for the first year of the Turing Scheme equates to the amount of Erasmus funding awarded to UK institutions in the 2017-18 academic year proportional to the numbers of students who underwent an Erasmus mobility in the same year. It therefore might just be sufficient for the first year of the scheme while Europe is still suffering the impact of Coronavirus, but in a post Covid world, this will be spread thin at best.
Notwithstanding the current difficulties in traveling, this is largely in part to the growing appetite for UK students to study or train abroad. The European Commission’s recent Annual Erasmus+ Report demonstrates that 18,305 UK higher education students underwent an Erasmus+ study or work placement in the 2018-19, an increase of 7% from the previous academic year.
The overall number of mobilities throughout the wider education sector already stands near the 35,000 mark, only made possible through funding, greater than £100 million, that is already allocated to the UK through the Erasmus+ programme. DfE’s allocation for the Turing in 2021 does not account for this.
Turing also does not account for the extra expenses involved in international travel. It may seem novel, (but isn’t) that is the offer of opportunities for international study and work. This has already been funded through Erasmus for many years now, through an additional funding envelope provided in part by the EU’s Development Fund, for many years now.
Expanded opportunities for international mobilities are welcomed in principle, but in practice, heavy promotion of international mobilities may result in astronomical travel expenses, visas fees and in the case of Anglophone destinations, steep cost of living – all which require a far greater investment than DfE’s promised £100 million. International partners are all well and good, but if most of your Erasmus+ students study German, for example, you’re pretty restricted to what country you can send them to.
What’s also striking is that the total funding isn’t a sufficient amount to fund the additional support mechanisms (on top of the costs mentioned above) needed to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds. Additional costs are an inevitability in the implementation support for cohorts of students who would not be able to go abroad without this in place. Institutions may be placed in the uncomfortable dilemma of offering fewer overall opportunities to students or targeted places for widening participation students, as a result of the restricted funding.
The European Commission’s driving philosophy behind their substantial budget increase for the next Erasmus programme was always intended to prevent this situation. Worth mentioning here is that at the heart of the Commission’s policies on widening access, UUKi’s 2017 report Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility informed a significant amount of the Commission’s policies on the reform of the future programme.
It would be a shame therefore that the UK’s expertise, as well as its position as a thought leader in widening participation could be undermined by inadequate support or funding for widening students. Crucially given the historical significance, any UK government funded scheme named after Alan Turing has an obligation to provide opportunities LGBTQ+ students, currently underrepresented in outward student mobility.
Reciprocity is key
It’s uncontroversial to say that the success of any exchange programme is based on the mutual willingness of exchange. The government has conspicuously committed to fund only “outward” mobilities, a somewhat puzzling decision given that reciprocity is a fundamental principle for any successful international exchange programme. Even with infinite funding at their disposal, if DfE (on principle) will only fund “outward” student mobility, then the Turing Scheme will be ill-fated and short-lived from the outset.
For those that have undergone the arduous task of negotiating exchange agreements (the legal basis for exchanges between universities) it can be prickly business at the best of times, but in a scheme where there is zero funding on the table and additional lengths of bureaucratic red tape to overcome, it becomes an even more delicate task, and now this little, if not any incentive for existing European universities to partner with the UK.
For one, students face barriers costly to enter the UK. It’s true that inbound students studying for up to 6-months in the UK won’t be subject to a great deal of additional immigration paperwork, but those who study 9 – 12 months in the UK will be required to apply for the Student Route, for permission to study beyond a 6-month period.
Fundamentally, this route was designed for full degree student, not students wishing to undergo a temporary period of study in the UK. It’s a costly route go down, as the £470 upfront NHS surcharge prove and also requires certified proof of English language ability which of course is problematic, as Erasmus+ is a scheme designed to improve language abilities through hands on experience and not all students may not have reached the required level as stipulated by the Home Office’s requirement. Instead, a streamlined dedicated immigration route for study abroad students would be a credible incentive.
For inbound Erasmus+ work placements too, (which accounted for 44% of all UK outbound placements in 2018-19 and 58% of all inbound Erasmus+ placements in the UK), it’s currently unclear whether the new rules on short-term business travel will include provisions for Erasmus+ work placements to be visa free – another substantial regulatory barrier.
Scandinavian countries, or others where English is widely spoken may well experience a sudden surge in Erasmus+ students in replacement of the UK. The l’Université Grenoble-Alpes is reportedly already sourcing alternative placements for their students since a) there is no requirement to obtain a visa and b) are automatically entitled to receive the full Erasmus+ grant.
More questions than answers
Other critical questions remain too – how tuition fees function will work (in Erasmus+ there is a strict no tuition fees charged rule encompassing all exchange agreements) and how credits in certain international universities will be recognised as part of a UK degree where there are no existing platforms of mutual recognition.
Arguably the UK government knows full well the economic value of a reciprocal funded mobility scheme, a political decision to focus on international mobility may well be a means of attracting wealthy international students who can bolster the UK economy and pay an international fee for a year in the UK.
Perhaps then, the many flaws evident in Turing indicate that the UK government never had an intention to contend with a behemoth like Erasmus+ – a programme fundamentally about the exchange of exchange and culture, rather than a means only to propping up educational exports.
The Turing scheme has a lot of issues to wade through before it can successfully get off the ground, never mind contend with the behemoth that is Erasmus – but as the Covid-19 pandemic eases I hope that travel will not be considered an elite luxury again, and international exchanges become the norm. To that end, the UK government owes students and young people a credible alternative to facilitate international exchange.