The hand-wringing over the UK’s Erasmus withdrawal is misplaced

The European programme’s globe-spanning successor, the Turing scheme, is more suited to meeting today’s challenges, says Louise Nicol

January 11, 2021
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Recent comment pieces about the UK’s decision to leave the Erasmus+ scheme have made the move sound apocalyptic. But let’s take a reality check.

First, UK students were not the primary beneficiaries of Erasmus. In the past five years, twice as many Erasmus students came to the UK as went the other way – reflecting the stark reality that Erasmus has never gained sufficient traction with UK students. This disparity represented a significant cost to the UK, which was ultimately borne by the taxpayer as part of the UK’s European Union budgetary contribution.

Second, there are stark equity issues around Erasmus. Even within the European community, issues of equity and social justice raise their head whenever the scheme is evaluated. A 2008 study, for instance, showed that there were “still important socio-economic barriers to the take-up of the programme”, while a 2010 study indicated that UK participants were “white and middle-class, and are academic high achievers, compared [with] the total UK student population”.

The equity issues are only brought into starker relief when you look beyond Europe. It is incongruous to subsidise EU students to study in the UK given European countries’ relatively high incomes and higher education participation rates compared with, for example, some Commonwealth nations.

Moreover, the emphasis on a European programme is wholly misplaced for a country that has embarked on a mission to become “Global Britain”. The hand-wringing about the UK’s Erasmus withdrawal is part of wider, troubling discourse suggesting that some UK universities have not adapted to the new situation – including those proposing to continue giving EU students preferential tuition fee rates. These policies discriminate against other international students and reinforce the notion that the UK is Western-centric and particularly exploitative of students from Asia.

Unlike Erasmus, the Turing scheme plays well to developments globally, particularly the rise of Asia. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are home to a staggering 10 per cent of the world’s youth, translating into 20 million higher education students, catered for by more than 7,000 universities. Regional frameworks such as the Asean Qualifications Reference Framework, the Asean Quality Assurance Framework for Higher Education and the Asean Credit Transfer System are already facilitating regional student mobility, and discussions are ongoing towards developing an Asean Educational Exchange programme, the “Asean student pass”. This should provide numerous opportunities for UK universities to partner with Asean institutions and employers under the Turing scheme.

Critics will still assert that much will be lost by withdrawing from Erasmus. But much of this derives from hunches and sentiment. A number of studies of Erasmus have been conducted, the largest being the pan-European 2019 Erasmus+ impact study, which surveyed more than 70,000 individuals about their perceptions of Erasmus’ impact on their employability and careers. However, I have yet to find a study that maps Erasmus participants’ actual destinations, incomes and careers post-programme. A study, Academic perspectives on the outcomes of outward student mobility, was undertaken in 2015 by the Higher Education Academy and Universities UK international but the primary research was a survey that elicited a response rate of only 56 individuals. While the report’s secondary research was commendable, it is impossible to base any conclusions on such a tiny sample.

Better data on outcomes from Erasmus involvement might have enabled UK universities to mount a far better case for preserving their links to the scheme, but that battle is over. We now need a far more innovative, technology-enabled methodology to measure the impact of the new Turing scheme on a longitudinal basis, so we can measure its benefit not just as a snapshot six or 12 months from graduation but over an individual’s lifetime.

The Turing scheme should be global in principle but trade oriented in focus, maximising UK students’ opportunity to travel to Asia and learn Asian languages/culture in the Asian Century. It should value soft power – in the form of having alumni with a wide network of contacts who have the authority to invest and trade. And it should ensure more engagement than Erasmus enjoys from industry and employers.

This will require universities to understand their international graduate destinations and form alliances and partnerships with international companies that can host students on work placements overseas. With robust country-specific data on international graduate outcomes, institutions can focus employer engagement where it will have the most impact. International employment data will also be crucial to motivating more UK students to take part in outward mobility.

It is time to move on from Erasmus and, with the benefits of hindsight and a real sense of purpose, build a better scheme that gives as many UK students as possible the opportunity to live and work overseas. This will enrich their higher education experience, enhance their future careers and help ensure that the UK makes a success of its new geopolitical place in the world.

Louise Nicol is the founder of the Asia Careers Group.

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