Prem Sikka: Turing is a pale shadow of the Erasmus programme

Will the funding even cover students living expenses?

The Erasmus Programme has been one of the biggest casualties of Brexit. The EU-wide programme provided exchange opportunities for UK students, trainees (on work placements, internships, etc.) and teachers to spend time in Europe.

It also provided opportunities for UK institutions to receive teachers, trainees and students from the EU countries. These arrangements could last for a term, semester or a longer period of up to 12 months. 

Erasmus sought to promote cultural exchanges, provide opportunities for international education and build a community. Research shows that students who go abroad get better degrees and better jobs. Students who are mobile also develop global networks and gain self-confidence. Evidence suggests that students with international exposure secure higher salaries.

In 2018/19, 18,305 UK students and trainees visited another EU country and some 30,501 came to the UK i.e. a total of nearly 49,000. In addition, 3,962 UK teachers visited other EU countries and 4,693 came to the UK. The cost of travel, subsistence and course fees was covered by the Erasmus programme.

The UK has been a major beneficiary of the Erasmus Programme. A UK House of Lords report noted that  “€1 billion is expected to be allocated to the UK between 2014 and 2020 to support university student exchanges, work and vocational training placements, youth projects, and opportunities for staff working at all levels of education to teach or train abroad. Extra funding is available for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with disabilities or additional needs”.

The Erasmus exchange also brought other financial benefits. For example, visitors spent some £440 million on living and related expenses to stimulate the UK economy.

Students from Northern Ireland can continue to participate in the Erasmus programme as the cost is covered by the Irish government.

The Turing Scheme

The UK government has replaced the Erasmus scheme with the Turing Scheme, again without any consultation.  It states that “The Turing scheme will be backed by over £100m, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021. The new scheme will also target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country.”

The UK government has trumpeted the new scheme but it is not that impressive. For example, the £100m for 35,000 students works out at about £2,867 per student per year. It is hard to see how students visiting many countries would be able to survive on that. The government assumption is that parents and families would provide additional funds. This will inevitably prevent those from disadvantaged backgrounds from participation in the scheme.

The 35,000 students cited in the UK government announcement also need to be seen in perspective. The UK has some 2.38 million students studying at higher education institutions.  But the UK government also states that the Turing scheme would also be available to students in schools. There are 8.89 million students in schools in England;  702,197 in Scotland; 469,176 in Wales and 334,620 in Northern Ireland. Altogether the 35,000 students will be selected from a pool of nearly 13 million. The government’s arrangements would offer students a 1 in 371 chance of securing a Turning scholarship. 

Shortcomings

The Turing scheme is underfunded. It does not seem to cover the cost of visits by UK students and makes no mention of exchange of teachers. It does not cover the cost of foreign students visiting the UK. The assumption is that other countries would have similar arrangements.

The UK government states that Turing students will be able to study and go on work placements in countries “across the world”. This presupposes that they will have the necessary linguistic skills. The government has not provided any additional resources for teaching of foreign languages.

The Erasmus scheme applied to all EU countries and covered most of the educational institutions. However, the UK government expects the Turing scheme to operate on an institutional basis i.e. UK school, colleges and universities will have to identify suitable institutions in other countries to reach an agreement. This will significantly increase administrative costs.

Anyone who has ever bid for UK government money will tell you that bidding is a time consuming and costly exercise. It requires administrative structures and the bidding outcomes are that either the scholarship is secured or not. The unsuccessful institutions would find hard to justify expenditure which has not yielded positive outcomes.

The Turing scheme does not provide any additional administrative funding to schools, colleges and universities. The assumption is that the institutions themselves will somehow foot the bill, but many institutions are not in a position to do so. Once again, the elite universities and schools will be the main beneficiaries.

Altogether, the Turing Scheme is a poor replacement for the Erasmus programme. The government’s act of vandalism has deprived UK citizens of opportunities for cultural exchanges and building global networks.

Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and a Labour member of the House of Lords

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