This blog was kindly contributed by Professor David Carter, Head of the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading.
The UK’s withdrawal from Erasmus+ is not a surprise to anyone who follows government announcements from time to time. The Prime Minister said to the House of Commons in January 2020 that we would stay in. But the November 2020 Spending Review included provision for an alternative, which we now know will be called the Turing scheme.
Nevertheless, there is no shortage of angry condemnation of this move in the mainstream and social media since its announcement on Christmas Eve 2020. An equally predictable response comes from the Government and its supporters. It has been a revival – call it a Christmas special – of the culture wars. Remainers decry the UK’s retreat from international engagement and the loss of opportunity for young people. Leavers present a now-familiar line: leave Europe to engage with the world – and in any case, they say, Erasmus funding is considered as a middle-class perk.
Neither point of view has been very well informed. Withdrawal from Erasmus does not take away student mobility opportunities overnight: the UK participates until the current Erasmus+ programme ends in 2022. But the end to free movement undermines student mobility whether we are in Erasmus or not. And it is not true, as implied by the Government, that Erasmus only funds mobility in Europe. Most higher education institutions win so-called KA103 project grants to fund mobility within participating countries and many also apply for KA107 money to fund worldwide mobility.
Both arguments reflect a limited idea of Erasmus+ and what it does. Erasmus+ is a seven-year programme with enormous scope, of which funding for student mobility is just one part. Its beneficiaries include not only higher education institutions but also schools and colleges, youth groups, adult education institutions and sporting bodies. The scope of the programme helps to explain its cost but also the benefits. Proposals for the next seven-year programme are more ambitious still. One way to explain policy in this area is to say that the Government wants a narrower focus.
Even within higher education, Erasmus+ supports not only student mobility (for work or study) but also staff mobility and funds large-scale projects to develop partnerships between universities. Its support for mobility is best understood as two things in parallel:
- a legal framework within which exchange agreements can be developed with minimal fuss; and
- project funding to be distributed to students by higher education institutions in the form of mobility grants. These grants – typically £3,500 for a whole year – do not remotely cover the full cost of a placement but they certainly make life easier for the student. The real gain to the student is through the principle of exchange and therefore the absence of additional fees.
Little is known so far of the Turing scheme. A Boxing Day press release by the Department of Education (DfE) promises at least £100 million in funding in 2021-22, to be distributed to ‘around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools’. Further information will be released in due course. Here are five questions to ask when this happens.
- Is this a replacement for participation in Erasmus+? The apparently narrow focus suggests that it will not completely fill an Erasmus-shaped hole. Furthermore, there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference between membership of a national scheme worth £100 million annually, and an international one currently worth €14.7 billion over seven years. The UK’s basic annual share of this is estimated as €213 million (about £193 million). The next seven-year Erasmus programme has an agreed budget of €26 billion. Membership of a bigger multilateral scheme presents greater possibilities.
- How far will the money go? A back-of-an-envelope calculation says that £100 million approximately covers the Erasmus funds distributed to British students for mobility within Europe and elsewhere. Given the stated aim is to promote mobility beyond Europe, is there enough to offer the same support for all existing worldwide mobility? We also need to know if there is ambition to expand the scheme to meet demand as worldwide opportunities increase.
- Does the Government know what it wants from this scheme? Two claims are made in the DfE press statement. The scheme ‘will target students from disadvantaged backgrounds’ and ‘will include countries across the world’. These address two perceived weaknesses in the Erasmus+ programme (the second, as I have said, is false). But this does not, so far, present a coherent programme for change. Greater engagement among students from low-participation backgrounds would be a significant gain, but will small Erasmus-style grants be enough on their own to tempt more students abroad? What broader interventions will remove the obstacles – real and perceived – to mobility?
- Will existing European exchange agreements survive? There are two things here. First, an exchange agreement made on Erasmus terms is just a few pages long and is supported by the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education. In the absence of this framework, we can expect university legal teams to busy themselves producing lengthy bilateral contracts. These must be negotiated individually and, inevitably, some European universities will be keener than others. Second, Turing funding is assumed to be unilateral. A successful exchange agreement needs roughly equal numbers to be mobile in each direction. The UK becomes a less desirable destination for incoming exchange students if partner universities cannot be depended upon to secure funding that will support them.
- What are the implications for Modern Languages? The position of Modern Languages in our universities is as depressing as it is well documented. It reflects a similar decline at secondary level. Part of the fault lies with a Labour Government, which in 2004 removed languages from the compulsory Key Stage 4 curriculum. But the sharp decline in A level entries and university admissions did not follow immediately. I think it more broadly reflects a lack of joined-up thinking around language education in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Given the levels of language proficiency needed to function, let alone study, in most European countries, what we really need is a policy approach to address languages and mobility in tandem. It is true that European universities are increasingly gaining the ability to deliver their courses in English. Nevertheless, the DfE focus on worldwide mobility potentially dodges the languages issue by directing students to English-speaking countries.
These are just the five questions that occur to me; there are doubtless many others. How they are answered will tell us whether the Turing scheme is best understood as a focused policy intervention or a short-term story in the news.