Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, higher education institutions have petitioned for continued participation in the Erasmus+ programme. This programme provides both funding and a platform to facilitate overseas education between participant countries, promoting both language skills and cultural immersion. It also boasts an impressive employment advantage for those who have taken part, with one report finding that those who participated had a wage premium of 7-9% compared with those who had not. Since its creation in 1987, over 200,000 UK students have benefited from the Erasmus+ programme.
Despite claims in January 2020 that the Erasmus scheme was safe, and a 2019 House of Lords report urging the Government to seek full association into Erasmus+, in December 2020 Boris Johnson announced the decision to opt out of the scheme for financial reasons. It has been replaced with the £30 million cheaper Turing scheme. This new educational scheme is named after Alan Turing, English Mathematician, World War Two code breaker and the father of computer science and Artificial Intelligence. The press release states that the £100 million scheme will support over 35,000 students to go on placements and exchanges abroad, starting in September 2021.
The main selling point of the Turing scheme is that it not only offers study in Europe, but global mobility, promoting North America and East Asia as study destinations. This has the potential to boost language learning across the world; in 2019 only 32% of 15–30 year olds in the UK were able to read or write in at least two languages compared with 71-99% in EU countries. It also aims to target and benefit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may have not been benefitting from Erasmus+. This is as much as we know about the scheme so far.
Despite the creation of a replacement programme, universities are mourning the loss of the Erasmus+ scheme. A major concern is simply the administration of such a programme. Where Erasmus+ had a system in place, UK organisations will be invited to bid in the Turing scheme. Those who are successful will receive grants for administering the scheme and students will receive the funding. Universities should try to establish links with their current European exchange universities and make new links further afield. This is a large undertaking for institutions who not only have to organise the exchanges but also settle on the worth of credits gained abroad towards students’ total degree programmes.
Another concern is the sheer cost of sending students further afield. Where the Erasmus+ partner institutions were accessible by train, now costly international flights are involved. With this one cannot dismiss the environmental impacts of such travel. Perhaps even more limiting than the costly travel is the cost of international tuition fees. Students who want to study in the US are looking at an annual tuition cost of £25,000, a cost that will not be nearly covered by the Turing scheme grant and Student Finance England combined. How these cost differences will be handled is currently uncertain. Perhaps the UK could look to the Swiss- European Mobility Programme (SEMP) as an example of a nation that set up a mobility scheme outside of Erasmus+.
There is also the question of whether this scheme is truly better for the UK’s economy. Despite costing £30 million cheaper than the annual participation in the Erasmus+ scheme, leaving the programme is anticipated to cost the UK £200 million. Not only did the programme bring in funding from European students paying their tuition fees, but also brought in income from these students’ accommodation and social costs. Almost doublethe number of students were coming to study in the UK than the UK sent out. The economic benefit of recent graduates who choose to move and work in the UK must also be considered.
One big question remains; what does success look like for the Turing scheme?
Despite the launching of the scheme this September, it is hard to envision what the programme might be measured by. Does it aim to increase, decrease or keep the same level of student mobility as Erasmus+? At least if it intends to maintain the level of mobility then there is a standard that the new scheme can be judged. However, with the additional bureaucracy and insufficient funding, it could be a disincentive for universities, reducing the number of opportunities to study with the scheme. It is likely that UK universities will prioritise their funding efforts to language degrees, which spending time abroad is a core part of the course, as opposed to the scheme opening up overseas opportunities to those studying science or arts degrees.
Furthermore, the benefit of Erasmus+ wasn’t just in student mobility but promoting strategic partnershipsacross Europe between staff and institutions. The Turing scheme must continue to promote this international collaboration in order to be considered a success. Likewise, there is a call to support European students who want to study in the UK, not only to help bring income but more importantly promote cultural diversity and shared learning.
Alana Cullen is a MSc student at Imperial College London studying Science Communication, and is the Social Media and Communication's Officer for the Foundation for Science and Technology.