How not to replace Erasmus

The Scottish Education Exchange Programme looks set for a frantic pilot done on the cheap

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The Turing scheme has had its fair share of criticism – short-termism, no inward mobility, staff excluded, to say nothing of the problems with the application systems that continue to dog it into its third year. There are also some nice features, such as its sharp focus on widening participation and its short-term mobility options.

Both the Welsh and Scottish governments were very clear post-Brexit that they wanted national schemes that would do more than Turing was designed to, with aspirations for both outward and inward student mobility, and funding for staff exchanges as well. Wales launched Taith in 2022 – how’s Scotland been getting on?

Not too well. What has been dubbed the Scottish Education Exchange Programme (SEEP – and yes people do seem to be turning that into an acronym despite how terrible it sounds) was announced in the 2021–22 Programme for Government, but has been stuck in development hell for a good part of the time since.

There’s been such a lack of detail, in fact, that earlier this year we had the unedifying spectacle of the Scottish education committee quizzing the team running Taith about what discussions they had had with the Scottish government and if they had any idea how planning was going, in the absence of any other news.

At the start of the summer things seemed to be finally getting moving, with the announcement of a pilot to take place this academic year and planning work to be done over recess. It was once again in the SNP’s Programme for Government.

On Wednesday, education secretary Jenny Gilruth was asked for an update at education committee. SEEP wouldn’t replicate “the full benefits of Erasmus”, we heard, and would be “much smaller in scale”. Higher education minister Graeme Dey would write to the committee – fast forward to this morning and the letter has arrived:

In October 2023, Scottish universities and colleges can bid for one short term grant for a minimum of £1,000 and maximum of £25,000 to undertake international projects by 31 March 2024. They can also apply for an additional £10,000 for projects which contain cross sector educational partnerships e.g. with schools, youth work, adult learning, and sports organisations and will prioritise placements for disadvantaged groups.

Scottish Government are committing an initial up to £1 million to this test and learn project. This shows our commitment to enable young people and staff to study and live abroad, and to EU and global partnerships.

Now, £1m in seed funding is really not a lot between all of Scotland’s colleges and universities – especially compared to £65m for Taith, as was pointed out in Holyrood later in the day. Quite what £1,000 is supposed to buy you in terms of student mobility is anyone’s guess, and even the maximum is a very sleek pilot programme. Jenny Gilruth was also not clear about where the funds would come from – the worry being it’s elsewhere in the education budget.

More grating for the sector than that, though, is the timeframe. Bids will be made in October, for projects by the end of March. The impossibility of planning, booking, advertising, recruiting, timetabling and delivering a short-term mobility programme for students on this schedule – the academic year started weeks back! – is blatantly obvious. Chuck into the mix partnerships with other educational institutions and things get even worse.

Again, this is a pilot, so there’s always the argument that the experiences of this year will gather evidence to allow SEEP to be on a firmer footing (and hopefully with a new name) in the next academic year – and it’s not unimaginable that talented staff in international offices will make a success of it by virtue of throwing in thousands of hours of time and effort. But equally, setting up a pilot with major constraints on success is a good way to doom a project in the longer term.

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