This blog was kindly contributed by Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International (UUKi). Previously on the HEPI website, Vivienne contributed the second chapter to the essay collection, ‘UK Universities and China’ which was published in July 2020. You can find Vivienne on Twitter @viviennestern.
Professor David Carter’s blog Five questions to ask about the Turing Scheme is a good read. Professor Carter asks important questions, but it misses a fundamental point. For now, at least, the door to Erasmus participation has closed.
For most of the last year we were able to debate the merits of a national scheme versus Erasmus. As Professor Carter points out, Erasmus is about more than mobility; its breadth and scale provide distinct advantages over a national scheme. That is why I argued, consistently, in favour of participation in the programme.
That period is over. I wasn’t surprised, in the context of the extraordinary economic pressures facing the UK that, in the end, the UK Government decided that the price tag for Erasmus participation was too high. As far as I understand it, there was no appetite for compromise in this area on the EU side at any stage in the negotiations.
As Professor Carter points out, therefore, those who were following negotiations understood that participation in Erasmus was becoming increasingly unlikely. For this reason, UUKi worked with colleagues in universities across the UK to develop proposals for a national alternative, should we need one. Our proposals, developed by a working group chaired by Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, drawing on the expertise of mobility experts from universities across the UK, centred around the following principles: that a national scheme should be provide an equivalent number of opportunities for students to Erasmus; it should be simple in design; it should be UK-wide, global and demand-led; and it should be designed to encourage wider participation in mobility.
What we know so far about the Turing Scheme sounds pretty good measured against these principles. £100 million should fund could fund between 15,000 and 20,000 opportunities for students in higher education, and 35,000 overall. Since just under 18,000 higher education students used the Erasmus scheme in 2018/19, Turing should be in the same ball-park in terms of the scale of opportunities. Furthermore, since many universities have multi-year Erasmus grants, which they will be able to continue to use, there will be additional funding in the system this year and next, especially given that limited mobility has taken place in the last year due to COVID, However, Professor Carter is right to ask whether this budget will accommodate growth in the number of students participating, especially if more students go further afield. But in response I would say two things:
Firstly, this is a one-year funding commitment. If we want room for growth, we need to make this case as part of the three-year Spending Review which is about to get underway.
Second, we’re in the middle of the biggest economic crisis of our lifetimes. I know that the Department for Education had to fight very hard indeed for the £100 million. For a long time, there was a real risk that, out of Erasmus, there would be nothing to replace it, or that a replacement would be tiny in scale. I also know that, without the glare of the UK-EU negotiations, maintaining political support for investment on this scale will be far from easy, especially if the reaction from our own sector is underwhelming.
I am disappointed that we won’t participate in the next Erasmus scheme. I understand the difficulties that universities might face in negotiating exchange agreements outside of it, especially since Turing will fund outbound, but not inbound mobility. But I believe that we need to wait to see the detail of the scheme before pouring cold water on it. I also believe that there is a reasonable chance that this scheme could provide a catalyst for growth in outbound mobility that, frankly, the Erasmus scheme has failed to deliver. After all, only 8% of UK undergraduate students undertook a period of study, work or volunteering abroad in 2018/19 – and less than half of them did so via the Erasmus programme. While that number has been growing over the last few years, you could argue that the lack of flexibility in Erasmus was part of the problem.
Turing wasn’t our plan A, but from what I can see so far, it is not a bad plan B, and it is certainly better than Plan Zero. I hope universities will make the best of it, and work to encourage students to make the most of the opportunities it will offer.