The Turing Scheme’s teething troubles could hamper ‘Global Britain’

Inclusivity would be boosted if the Erasmus replacement offered funding more promptly and flexibly, say Richard Davies and Andrew Griff-Owen

January 23, 2023
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This year, UK universities say a final farewell to Erasmus funding. The European Union’s international mobility scheme is a genuine success story, having changed the lives of thousands of students over the years by giving them the opportunity to study and work abroad – and gain all the skills, confidence and cultural experiences that come with it.

Erasmus’ post-Brexit replacement, the Turing Scheme, is equally ambitious, and the diversity of opportunities in its first two years of operation has been spectacular. At our institution, Newcastle University, ideas for placements have come from all corners, and just in this academic year so far we have sent 366 students to 30 countries (only 60 per cent of which are in Europe). Activities have included volunteering in Fiji, mathematics fieldwork in Cyprus and research trips to India, as well as the critically important placements for language students in European countries.

The truly global scope helps us to strengthen many more educational and research partnerships with a broad range of organisations around the world. And the shorter four-week mobilities have achieved the intended step change in opportunities for students from less-advantaged backgrounds. Multiplied across the whole UK higher education sector (and added to Wales’ similar Taith scheme), this level of activity becomes a powerful building block of the government’s Global Britain objectives.

But it would have been extraordinary for the implementation of such a complex project to have been flawless, and sure enough, Turing’s promise risks being eclipsed by a growing number of issues.

UK universities are among the most internationally networked in the world. Unsurprisingly, the demand from our students for mobility opportunities outstrips the scale of the funding, and a recent poll by Universities UK found that 65 per cent of UK institutions were planning to expand student mobility. Of course, increasing the budget would be welcome, but the nub of the issue is how the existing budget is administered.

Better funding disbursement would be very welcome. For students undertaking mobility in September 2022, we did not receive notification of our grant allocations until the end of July. Moreover, the funding itself came through only after some students had already arrived at their international destination. Late notification of funding means that universities cannot provide certainty to students, and ultimately, this has the greatest impact on those from less-advantaged backgrounds, who cannot commit to paying up front for things such as travel and visas. So the Turing Scheme, as it stands, is not as inclusive as intended.

To help us manage the programme and provide students with information, we need clarity on our budget allocation at least a year in advance, and we need to receive funds several months before the start of the academic year. Alternatively, could we operate on a 24-month project cycle, as we did under Erasmus? This would allow us to put more funding into one year than another and would mean we could orchestrate mobilities that run from one year to the next. It makes for a better use of the funding, ensuring that the benefits to students are maximised.

The offer of more flexibility would be embraced by the sector. Universities could make their budgets stretch much further if we had the freedom to use our discretion in what we allocate to participants, but Turing grant allocations must be standard and consistently applied. Could we find greater opportunities to open up international mobility to students from all backgrounds by, for instance, allowing activities that are even shorter than four weeks? We could explore the possibility of placing students in our overseas campuses; those experiences are just as international and life changing as others.

Erasmus has evolved considerably over its 35 years of operation, and Turing cannot afford to stand still, either. Universities have lots of experience in managing international mobility, and as we try to ensure that we are as well set up as we can be for Turing’s third round, we need to be able to use student and beneficiary feedback to suggest improvements. Only this way can we ensure that the scheme becomes the world-leading, ultra-accessible mobility programme that we all want.

Richard Davies is pro vice-chancellor for global and sustainability and Andrew Griff-Owen is international mobility manager at Newcastle University.

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Reader's comments (1)

We are seeing some very real impacts of this administrational chaos. We are managing funding for 400 students with a commitment to over 25% of those placements going to low-income students and 100% of schools in our consortium based in low-income areas. Without the funds being released, we are having to cancel or delay almost all our activities because we don't have the funds to cover flights, which get more expensive the longer we don't book them. We are in serious discussions about abandoning our support of the scheme due to feasibility issues, but snatching away this opportunity from kids who benefit so greatly from it breaks our hearts! We will keep trying to do what we can, but a serious review of the scheme's management is needed if it is to meet its goals!