UK universities’ half-hearted support for Erasmus+ must not be repeated

The Turing mobility scheme is a poor substitute for Erasmus+ but UK universities must learn to love it or it will soon crumble, says Marcus Dowse

January 26, 2021
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The print and social-media furore over the UK’s exit from the European Union’s Erasmus+ mobility programme created a polarised noise, both vicious and delicious. The passionate outpourings of regret underline that Erasmus is a culture, a brand and an identity as much as it is an educational programme. But, like fishing, its symbolism seems to be more important than the activity itself.

Departure from Erasmus was not surprising, even if it was unwanted. The outcome was clear when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, committed funds to a “domestic alternative” in his November 2020 Spending Review – even if the government continued to state that remaining in Erasmus was the “preferred option”. Yet where was the sustained public fight to make that preferred option the reality?

Universities UK ran a #SupportStudyAbroad campaign. But outside study abroad offices and language departments, did the UK higher education sector really value Erasmus and the consistent (if somewhat bureaucratic) framework it provided for international exchange? There will be exceptions, but in general UK universities were not as actively involved as other European nations in the likes of the Jean Monnet programme (for studying European integration), the “European universites” initiative or capacity building and knowledge alliances.

And few UK universities publicly participated in the last #ErasmusDays event in October – despite it being a perfect opportunity to make a bold national statement at a pivotal time in UK-EU negotiations. Instead, sector lobbying was mostly focused around remaining in the Horizon Europe research funding programme.

What is provided by the “domestic replacement” – christened the Turing scheme – is arguably what the UK sector valued most from Erasmus: money. The sum of £100 million is a lot, especially during Covid-19 times, and it should be welcomed. However, there is no assurance of its longevity. It will be subject to future spending reviews and the UK’s coffers are not bountiful; the request for the British Council to manage Turing is for one year only and governments have been known to backtrack on commitments once an initial uproar disappears.

Moreover, a national programme can be changed to suit political and trade objectives, so there is no guaranteed consistency in its format, principle or emphasis. This added level of risk in the system is something that institutions will need to adapt to and plan for.

No one doubts that Turing will benefit students for as long as it exists. Its proclaimed focus on supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds is important, even if the social media notion that it could enable access to Ivy League institutions is stretching it. But money does not necessarily solve the long-standing systemic issues that create barriers to participation (such as perception, engagement, and family circumstances and background). Universities need to create and nurture opportunity.

Turing may yet generate greater interest and participation than Erasmus did, but that increase is most likely to focus on countries where demand for places from UK students already outstrips supply: that is, Anglophone countries. That constrained demand partly relates to the fact that there is lower demand among students from the likes of Canada, Australia and the US for exchange placements at UK universities. This seems unlikely to change, particularly given that the Turing funding is for outward mobility only.

Turing will not and should not cover tuition fees abroad, as this will reduce the number of students who will benefit from the scheme. UK universities do not want to pay tuition direct to partners to facilitate study opportunities. Therefore, unless the funding is flexible enough to facilitate different models of mobility, Turing will not create new opportunities: it will only fund activities that probably already exist. As there is no financial reciprocity envisaged within the scheme, this could lead to UK institutions elbowing each other aside for funding, opportunities and partnerships to meet the increased demand for placements outside of Europe.

Arguably, Turing’s cited benefits are available in Erasmus, albeit to a different extent, including additional funding/opportunity for disadvantaged students and funds to support mobility outside of Europe). Contrariwise, Turing is unlikely to replicate all the innovations proposed in the new Erasmus programme (such as consortia arrangements), at least in the short term. Staff mobility is also now lost. Change can stimulate more agility, imagination and resourcefulness, but on top of everything else universities are contending with currently, it will not be welcomed.

Nor will the spuriously alleged elitism fostered by Erasmus in only benefiting advantaged students with existing linguistic skills be solved by Turing. Students may still need linguistic skills to go South America, East Asia or the Middle East, as well as to Europe. And many students who want or need to study in Europe cannot afford to do so without funding for living expenses, which is no longer guaranteed – hence, opportunity for some could come at the detriment of others. We should be creating opportunity and fair access for everyone.

For many, Erasmus is the perfect exemplar of Brexit. We didn’t fight hard enough for what we wanted, so have ended up with what we inadvertently asked for. The pre-Brexit activity will continue but it will become more complicated, and while we may question the rationale, we have no option but to make it work. 

Turing must be supported – not for political reasons but to ensure that funding continues to support as many students as possible so they can benefit from the positive outcomes of studying and working abroad. At the same time, we must learn the lessons of why we are where we are. We must not take for granted what we think we have, and we must fight to ensure that history does not repeat itself. #SupportStudyAbroad

Marcus Dowse is Erasmus and study abroad manager at the University of Reading.

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Reader's comments (1)

"...and we must fight to ensure that history does not repeat itself." Very good, but in the shamble of Brexit, Covid, the economic crash, the break up of the union, most sensible scholars and students will have decided that working/ studying abroad would be the sensible choice. Safe harbours from the destructive madness of nationalism are required for any decent research or study.