I reckon the row about whether the UK’s new Turing scheme will be any better at getting British students to go on study or work placements abroad than the EU’s Erasmus+ alternative has one benefit for those who see student mobility as a good thing.

It has put the case for encouraging more young people from less advantaged backgrounds to spend a few months working or studying in another country centre stage in both EU and UK education policy.

Sadly, the Erasmus-versus-Turing debate has fallen foul of jingoistic post-Brexit political debate that seems to cloud decision-making on both sides of the North Sea at the moment.

We’ve seen this with the growing nationalistic tone over whether the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed in partnership with Oxford University, is safe to use in a number of European countries. As I’ve already blogged, the last thing the fight against the COVID-19 health emergency needs is the lack of clear communications from political leaders about whether people should get vaccinated against a killer virus.

Getting embroiled in Brexit stuff

While not a matter of life or death, student and staff mobility between the UK and rest of Europe is still important and it shouldn’t get embroiled in boring old Brexit stuff.

We’ve seen a bit of this with the UK boasting that their outbound mobility scheme is part of a Global Britain strategy, which seems designed to try to bypass the EU and reach out to the rest of the world. 

Arch anti-Brexiteer Guy Verhofstadt, a member of the European Parliament, has already jumped in and used Twitter to claim that Turing offers “fewer opportunities for young students” and that cost of living grants under Erasmus were up to £630, while the Turing scheme offers a maximum of £490 per month to mobile students. 

The UK government agrees disadvantaged students will receive a maximum of £490 (around €573, but says this compares to €540 under Erasmus+). It adds that less advantaged mobile students will also get funding to offset the costs of travel, passports, visas and insurance under the Turing scheme.

So, they can’t even agree on the figures!

More mobility for disadvantaged students

Does any of this matter if we manage to get more young Brits interested in study or work placement in Europe and the rest of the world, particularly from less advantaged communities and institutions where few students venture abroad?

Isn’t it more important that we have an alternative mobility scheme now we know Britain is leaving the next round of Erasmus+? Hasn’t Universities UK International boss Vivienne Stern got a valid point when she says, despite the Turing scheme being far from perfect: “We must use it or lose it.”

So, let boastful British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, tell the world that Turing is “a truly global programme”, which “seeks to help students of all income groups from across the country experience fantastic education opportunities in any country they choose.”

Levelling up agenda

And let’s allow the press release from the UK’s Department for Education to have UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson droning on about Turing supporting the government’s “levelling up agenda”.

But he probably shouldn’t wind-up European politicians by suggesting the Turing programme’s “focus on social mobility and value for money will open up more opportunities for international education and travel to all of our students, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who were less likely to benefit from the previous EU scheme.”

Much of this is hot air, but if it gets the UK government on board the mobility wagon at a time when public spending is very tight after Covid, isn’t it a price worth paying? 

We can hopefully improve the Turing scheme in future years – and maybe even look again at staff exchanges and reciprocity in student exchanges. It is also a good sign that administration of the UK study abroad programme will be carried out by the British Council and Ecorys, who were the UK agency for Erasmus+, rather than handing it over to some outfit nobody has heard of before as happened with some PPE contracts during the COVID-19 crisis.

The key thing is that British universities, further education colleges and schools have been given £110 million to develop the substitute scheme in its first year (2021-22). In the current economic climate that’s not to be sniffed at! 

And let’s get real, and accept that most student mobility in the past has been the preserve of more affluent families – whether that’s richer Chinese students doing their whole degree abroad in the United States – or Erasmus participants going on exchanges to another EU member state for six months to a year.

So, I welcome the Turing idea of shortening the minimum period for exchanges to four weeks from the two months for work or three months for study abroad under the old Erasmus Scheme and reaching out to institutions like Cardiff Met University in South Wales, where students are often looking for work placements, internships or summer schools rather than a semester or two studying abroad.

Rush job

Of course, the UK’s Turing replacement to participating in Erasmus+ was a bit of rush job after it was clear Britain was unlikely to sign-up to next round of the EU mobility programme at the end of 2020.

And looking on from EU member states, people like Emmy Arts, head of the international relations at Ecole Centrale de Marseille and an Erasmus expert for both France and the Netherlands, must find the British way of handling the repercussions of Brexit baffling to understand. 

In an email to me, she wondered how the results of bids for Turing funding for the first mobility placements, which won’t be known until July, will allow time for agreements with foreign universities to be put in place for the start of the 2021-22 academic year starting this coming September!

Jumping the starting gun

Part of the answer appears to be thanks to those universities committed to continuing exchanges between the UK and rest of Europe jumping the starting gun before applications for Turing funding opened, which only happened in March 2021. 

As I reported in University World News on 6 March, 2021, British and neighbouring universities are drawing on unspent Erasmus+ funds from the last programme, which are higher than expected because of the Covid travel restrictions in 2020-21, and plan to use them over the next couple of years to help the new arrangements bed in.

The University of Alicante in Spain has managed, for example, to secure institutional agreements with 40 of the 41 UK universities it previously had Erasmus+ student and staff exchanges with to continue two-way student (and staff) mobility next year, with the Turing scheme hopefully paying for outward-bound British students while they use their own Erasmus+ grants and other mobility funds so Spanish students can take up placements at UK universities. Tuition fees will be waived for both incoming and out-bound mobility students.

That’s the way we are going to maintain better relations and mutual understanding between British and European young people in the future and not by boasting which mobility scheme is the greatest.

More about the Turing scheme here and about Erasmus+ here

One or two facts

  • A BBC Reality Check report on Erasmus after Brexit, published on 15 October 2020, said 16,561 UK students participated in Erasmus exchanges in 2017, while 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK under the mobility scheme.
  • The Turing scheme says it will provide funds for up to 35,000 UK students to go abroad on study and work placements, including around 20,000 higher education students. Unlike Erasmus+, the UK substitute doesn’t offer financial support to students coming on placement to the UK. It also doesn’t cover staff exchanges. 

Recommended further reading:

Unspent Erasmus funds to help UK mobility scheme to fly, Nic Mitchell, University Wold News, 6 March 2021

How does the Turing scheme compare to Erasmus? Jess Staufenberg, FE Week, 9 March 2021

Turing scheme to open up global study and work opportunitiespress release from the Department for Education (UK), 12 March 2021

The Turing Scheme: does it pass the test? By Professor Paul James Cardwell and Dr Max Fras, UK in a Changing Europe, 12 March 2021

Main image:Gov.UK

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