“There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme”, Boris Johnson told a crowded House of Commons in January 2020. Students across the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief but the sceptics among them warned them not to hold their breath.
By the time December rolled around, however, things had taken a turn for the worse as Johnson told the British public that a “tough” decision had been made: Erasmus was off the cards.
However, he explained that the loss of Erasmus did not equate to the loss of student mobility and the British government was quick to announce the introduction of the Turing scheme, which is set to kick off in the coming months.
Significantly, the Turing scheme – named after pioneering mathematician Alan Turning – claims to do what Erasmus did not and aims to “improve social mobility, targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+”.
According to the BBC, 73 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 wanted to remain
“They’re really good at getting a catchy headline”, Kira Lewis, one of the Trustees of the British Youth Council, tells me. However, when you begin to unpick the government’s policy, it soon becomes clear that “it’s a huge world away from what a good policy actually should be”, they explain.
Lewis is not the only one sceptical of the new scheme. According to the BBC, 73 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 wanted to remain and, despite the disquiet among them, it seems as though their futures have been reduced to little more than a bargaining chip.
“I think it’s definitely a political choice”, says Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students. Having sat in on committee meetings in the House of Lords, Gyebi-Ababio tells me that “there is no cost-benefit analysis” that explains “why this government has decided to leave Erasmus and bring in the Turing scheme”.
Eloise Millard, a journalist who has written for the Guardian about her experience on Erasmus, agrees: “I think it’s a political decision to say that we don’t need Europe and we do … they say we’re leaving the EU but we’re not leaving Europe and I think we are because this is this is two fingers to all the Erasmus partners who supported us for decades.”
Gyebi-Ababio tells me that “there is no cost-benefit analysis” that explains “why this government has decided to leave Erasmus and bring in the Turing scheme”
Something that Millard and many others take issue with is the fact that many non-EU countries participate in the Erasmus programme yet the UK refused to be among them. “For me, it just feels like the reason we have left it is pettiness not because we can offer something better”, Millard explains.
However, the Turing scheme is convinced it can offer something better, particularly for disadvantaged students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this claim does not strike a chord with all. “It’s disingenuous because we don’t have evidence to prove that that’s going to work”, Millard tells me.
Gyebi-Ababio agrees and finds the fact it is being promoted as prioritising disadvantaged students despite the fact it offers far less than Erasmus did worrying. “It’s really important to say that whilst the government might be framing it [as] better than Erasmus, there actually has been no material evidence that it is”, she explains.
At the heart of the issue lies the subject of tuition fees which the Turing scheme, unlike the Erasmus programme, does not claim to cover. Milliard finds it concerning that the scheme has “been sold to the public by the Tories [with an] emphasis on studying outside of the EU”. Yet, she explains how the £110 million that the Government has put towards the scheme cannot possibly cover the cost of international exchanges in countries such as the US where annual tuition fees cost tens of thousands of dollars.
It’s really important to say that whilst the government might be framing it [as] better than Erasmus, there actually has been no material evidence that it is”
The issue of tuition fees becomes even more concerning when we consider that Gyebi-Ababio has deemed cost the biggest barrier that disadvantaged students face. Indeed, for many, it is challenging to see how a scheme that does not promise to cover perhaps the heaviest financial burden, may be considered accessible.
Nevertheless, as Prof David Carter, Head of the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading, points out, just because the scheme does not pledge to cover the cost of tuition, does not mean that it won’t be able to facilitate tuition free exchanges.
“What makes the tuition free is the existence of an exchange agreement”, he says. In other words, what makes it free is that students are, quite literally, exchanged for one another so the cost incurred by the participating universities remains more or less the same. He tells me that Michelle Donelan, the minister of state for universities, has made it clear that universities can still engage in bilateral exchanges, however, it will not be as easy as it once was.
A key issue, according to Carter, is that there is a fundamental difference between the two schemes: the Erasmus programme is a funding agreement as well as a legal framework whereas the Turing scheme is only a funding agreement. This means that while universities can enter into bilateral agreements, exchanging one student for another, the process is more difficult and time-consuming, making it unclear how many willing partners UK universities will have.
What makes it free is that students are, quite literally, exchanged for one another so the cost incurred by the participating universities remains more or less the same
While the presence or absence of tuition fees will have a profound impact on the accessibility of the scheme, Carter is more confident than Millard and Gyebi-Ababio that it will benefit disadvantaged students. He tells me that the Turing scheme application form demands a high level of accountability. Universities must show that the funds are used to “promote mobility among students from non-traditional backgrounds, students [with] particular protected characteristics” and to link that “back to the university’s widening participation strategy”.
However, the narrative that disadvantaged students will be better off under the Turing scheme overlooks the fact that it was not only the exchange component of the Erasmus programme from which disadvantaged students benefited. “Ultimately, [Erasmus] was always well known for the trip, the exchange”, Lewis says, but the loss of the Erasmus programme has resulted in “a billion euro deficit to UK charities”.
Turing scheme application form demands a high level of accountability
Unfortunately, few are aware of the impact that the Turing scheme will have on charities because many do not realise that they receive Erasmus funding in the first instance. The consequence of this is that many disadvantaged students – those who the scheme aims to prioritise – will be left behind.
Indeed, it is these students that benefit from the funding that the British Youth Council and other charities receive because they operate in some of “the hardest-hit areas of the UK, in the most rural communities”. Lewis tells me that “at one point, up to a third of [the British Youth Council’s] funding came from Erasmus”, so the loss of the scheme will result in “a huge restructuring of our charity”. To make matters worse, they explain that “the government has said basically nothing about replacing that funding … and it’s not small money that we could ask local funders for”.
What soon becomes evident that it is simply too early to tell how the Turing scheme will fare. Carter tells me that the scheme “suffers by comparison to a much, much bigger, much better-established scheme”. However, with so many questions left unanswered, comparison in search of clarity is difficult to resist.