After countless delays, blunders and U-turns, the Tories did what they were elected to do: get Brexit done. Many may feel that a weight has been lifted from the nation’s shoulders – if only for the fact we’ll never have to hear that slogan again – but Britain’s exit from the European Union has already made an impact.
Namely, the decision to pull out of Erasmus+, the EU-wide exchange programme that allows university students to study and work abroad with a monthly stipend to cover expenses. Established in the 1980s, Erasmus has been hailed as the gold standard of student mobility in Europe.
In its place, the government has created the “Turing scheme”. Rather gracelessly named after late gay war hero, Alan Turing (who died by suicide after the British government prosecuted him for homosexuality), the new student exchange programme was announced by the Department for Education (DfE) last month. It commits £100 million of funding to send 35,000 students on placements and exchanges overseas, as well as promising to target those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme,” the press statement read, “but it will include countries across the world and aims to deliver greater value for money to taxpayers.”
Can the Turing scheme actually achieve this? Professor David Carter, the head of International Study and Language at Reading University, is sceptical for a few reasons.
Firstly, the aims of the scheme seem somewhat disingenuous. Studies show that young people who study abroad – in particular disadvantaged students – benefit from better job prospects and higher salaries, so Carter is glad the government is “thinking in terms of giving access to mobility to all students, but especially those from non-traditional backgrounds”. But if this is the government’s main aim, he says, they’d have been better off staying with Erasmus: “The next seven-year cycle of Erasmus is going to be much bigger with nearly twice as much funding, and one of its stated aims is to do much more for students from non-traditional backgrounds.”
Not only that, but the government’s claim that the Turing scheme will be “global” seems like an attempt to position it as having a wider remit than Erasmus. But, Carter says, “this is unfair because Erasmus is already a worldwide programme”. Erasmus offers placements in a number of countries outside the European Union, including in the Middle East, Australia and the United States.
Secondly, with an initial budget of £100 million – £30 million less than the UK received in Erasmus grants in 2019 – Carter wonders whether the Turing scheme has enough funding to cover all aspects of student exchange.
“Erasmus funds students on both sides of the exchange,” he says. “So, the student abroad from the UK is incentivised to come here because they're given a small grant to go with.”
This means that Erasmus students are not usually required to pay extra university fees, since the costs balance out. However it is not clear how tuition fees will be covered under the Turing scheme, nor how incoming international students will be supported. As the Conversation reports, “in order to work effectively, the Turing scheme needs to be coordinated centrally in order to relieve the burden on individual institutions, and ensure that outgoing students are not liable for fees in the host country.”
In response to these concerns, the DfE told VICE World News that it expects institutions participating in the Turing scheme to waive tuition fees for incoming or outgoing students. The scheme will fund UK students to study and do work placements abroad, and expects overseas countries to do the same for their domestic students.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The new global Turing scheme, backed by over £100 million, will provide thousands of students across all of the UK with the opportunity to study and work abroad, beyond EU countries, and will focus on delivering value for money for British taxpayers.
We will continue to work with the sector and devolved administrations to deliver a comparable number of exchanges across schools, colleges and universities, and ensure students from all backgrounds benefit from the opportunity to learn across the world.”
Evie, a French language student at the University of Leeds, was hoping to study in France this year. Unsure of how to access funding through the Turing scheme, she had to go for a work placement instead.
“My parents wouldn’t be able to fund my year abroad,” says Evie, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “With the financial certainty provided by Erasmus having been unfairly withdrawn, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fund it myself.”
She adds: “I have to go away for my degree, but not everybody has expendable income, especially for something as major as a year abroad.” She worries that taking a job in France rather than studying will make it harder to “fully immerse [herself] in French culture”.
When it comes to the Turing scheme’s stated aim of getting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds on a year abroad, Carter is keen to reiterate that this is an important goal. Still, he wonders how the government plans to do this, since it hasn’t made clear how students like Evie can access funding.
“Are more disadvantaged students going to be tempted to go abroad by a small grant?” he asks. “And if not, do you need to tempt them with more money; pay all their expenses?” If the answer is yes, Carter says, “then you're diverting quite a lot of your £100 million budget into widening participation projects and there's less money to go around for the other students.”
If the answer is no – which Carter thinks is the case for many – what else can the Turing scheme do to reach these lower income students? “These are all questions that need to be answered,” he says.
A year abroad can be a life-changing experience, one that benefits not just a student’s future career prospects but can improve language skills, build confidence and widen horizons. The end of the Erasmus scheme may be yet another loss for young people in Britain, who already face fewer job prospects and restricted movement due to Brexit.
“Of course we welcome the Turing scheme. We welcome the funding and we welcome the renewed commitment to sending students abroad,” says Carter. “What I don’t understand is – given the stated aims – why leave Erasmus in the first place?”