The UK Government’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ programme in December 2020 has been widely lamented, in the UK, across Europe and beyond, not least as the Prime Minister stated in the House of Commons in 2020 that there was ‘no threat to the Erasmus scheme.’
The rapidly announced replacement – the Turing Scheme – came with few details to allow education providers and potential participants to start to prepare for the coming academic year.
The rationale for the decision to walk away from Erasmus+ was to provide better value for money – and to refocus education on ‘Global Britain’. The new scheme would allow ‘up to 35,000’ students to go to elite US institutions and cited countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia as destinations.
Strong emphasis would be placed on facilitating take-up of places by lower income students, reflecting a concern – often exaggerated – that Erasmus+ was the preserve of rich students enjoying a holiday.
Further details and guidance about the Turing Scheme are now available. The first observation is just how much it borrows from Erasmus+. The administration will be carried out by a partnership between the British Council and Ecorys, who were the UK Agency for Erasmus+, thus ensuring continuity and expertise.
The funding model is an almost direct copy of Erasmus+. Funding will be allocated for help with living costs, with amounts varying according to destination.
Nevertheless, the amounts available under Turing are less generous that Erasmus+. Pages nine and ten of the Programme Guide specify a maximum of £490 per month under Turing for disadvantaged students (£380 for others) for a stay of three to twelve months. This compared with €520 (approx £445) under Erasmus+, rising to €720 (approx £630) for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Travel costs calculations are a direct copy of Erasmus+, with one additional band for the longest distances. However, under Erasmus+, up to £1,315 is available for all participants towards travel costs but Turing only offers support to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A student who does not qualify for this support is advised to seek alternative sources of funding, depending on where they reside in the UK.
The focus on promoting opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is certainly welcome. For participants in Higher Education, the Turing Scheme defines this category as students with an annual household income of £25,000 per year, receiving Universal Credit or income-related benefits, or who have caring responsibilities, who are care-leavers or refugees.
Even with full travel expenses, if the aim is to send a high number of students to far-flung destinations like Australia and New Zealand, possibly travelling at peak time with higher flight prices, then the funding would only likely cover one return trip – and students are advised to ensure that they have adequate funds to make sure they can return home at short notice (for instance for medical, or family emergencies).
Under Erasmus+, institutions cannot charge fees to incoming students – the basis of the programme is that students are exchanged on a reciprocal, fee-waiver basis. The Turing Scheme fails to specify that students cannot be charged fees.
This means that universities will need to conclude agreements on a fee-waiver to avoid students having to pay fees – potentially very high in some countries. Many existing non-Erasmus exchanges operate on this basis but assuming that host institutions will waive fees is a major risk. For European links formerly covered by Erasmus+, these could be ‘converted’ to bilateral exchanges if the respective institutions agree.
Turing may well help students who participate in the kinds of agreements already found in UK universities with institutions outside Europe who do not normally receive any financial help with costs. However, concluding, operating and maintaining non-Erasmus exchanges is a major challenge.
For a successful fee-waiver based exchange to work, both parties need to be satisfied that the number of students participating will be roughly equal, or there is at least some other benefit, whether financial or educational. For institutions where there is already a high demand for fee-paying places from both domestic and international students, a fee-waiver does not make much sense unless there is going to be a benefit.
Institutions in popular destinations such as Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore already have agreements with UK partners and are unlikely to have capacity for even more. Concluding agreements in developing countries will be hampered under Turing due to the lack of funding for incoming students and the demands of the UK immigration system.
Time looks like being a key problem. Funding will be announced in July giving universities and students very little time to act – especially as some destinations start the academic year earlier than the UK.
More broadly, promoting exchanges requires a huge amount of forward-planning. It is relatively uncommon for a UK student to decide to add an additional semester or year to their degree, or substitute a period at home for abroad.
In order to join a degree incorporating study abroad, potential students (especially the less well-off) will need advanced certainty that it would not add considerably to high levels of student debt. Such certainty was provided by the multi-annual nature of Erasmus+. It is a particular concern for language degrees (or degrees incorporating a language), where study abroad is the norms and which should be an essential to ‘Global Britain’.
In short, much depends on how, in a post-Covid-19 world, the Turing scheme emerges from its difficult birth and helps to inspire international confidence in the UK.
It seems likely that, despite the rhetoric about supporting the least well-off students, the result of a lack of funding for most students – whilst the costs of travel to outside Europe and increased paperwork post-Brexit hikes costs – might well reduce the overall numbers of UK students departing.
This would not be a welcome sign for ‘Global Britain’, the academic benefits of study abroad or – most importantly – fulfil any of the stated aims in withdrawing from and replacing Erasmus+.
By Paul James Cardwell, Professor in Law at the University of Strathclyde and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and Max Fras, international development consultant and Visiting Fellow at the European Institute, LSE.