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30 March 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 7:52am

Why the UK’s new study abroad scheme may fail to live up to the EU’s Erasmus

Britain’s confused Turing programme may harm the “Global Britain” vision the government hopes to encourage.  

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

“There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, and we will continue to participate in it,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons last January. Thirteen months – and one Brexit – later, Britain pulled out of the EU’s scheme, and applications for its replacement opened to students keen to study abroad.

The new programme, named after the British mathematician Alan Turing, tries to differentiate itself by offering students an opportunity to work and study in countries across the world, in contrast to the mainly Eurocentric scope of Erasmus. Its objectives, according to the scheme’s programme guide, are not only to boost the credentials of British students, regardless of their socio-economic background, but also to bolster “Global Britain’s” presence on the international stage.

However, the Erasmus scheme, which has been running since 1987 and was upgraded to “Erasmus+” in 2014, is proving a difficult act to follow. Concerns around how much money students will have to live on under the new scheme, whether or not tuition fees will be waived, as well as the Turing’s long-term future, have all been the subject of intense discussion, particularly on social media.

So how do the two schemes compare?

In terms of how much students receive to cover their cost of living, Turing and Erasmus+ are very similar: those studying in the countries deemed to have the highest living costs will receive £380 (€445) per month under Turing, while students on Erasmus+ will receive £359 (€420) per month.

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Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also able to access extra funding under both schemes: Turing students studying in the most expensive countries for more than nine weeks will receive £490 (€572) per month, while students on Erasmus+ will get £462 (€540) to live on.

The real problem for Turing, however, are the tuition fees. Unlike Erasmus+, the scheme itself will not cover them. The government says it “expects” fees to be waived by host universities, but this is not yet guaranteed.

When questioned on this, the universities minister Michelle Donelan told the BBC’s Today programme that “our universities will partner with another university and they will waive the fees because they will be exchanging students”, but the details about how this works in practice are yet to be announced.

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Either way, it is not certain that foreign institutions will want to negotiate and join the new Turing scheme. “It’s not that easy for universities to reach that kind of agreement,” Manuel Souto-Otero, a professor of social sciences at Cardiff University, told the New Statesman.

Roger Sell, who led the Erasmus+ programme at Dartington College of Arts from its inception in 1987 until 2010, believes the exchange of living costs presents a problem. “Money from Turing goes to a UK student going abroad, and there are tuition waivers from the partner institution, but where does the money come from for students in the partner institutions to come to the UK? 

“With the Erasmus programme, it was completely reciprocal… I don’t know how Turing’s going to work if there’s no reciprocity of support.”

[See also: The Tories’ flag-flying is the shallowest form of patriotism]

Souto-Otero fears students in Europe may decide to skip the UK altogether. “Would you rather go to an excellent university in the Netherlands, and partly have your costs offset [with Erasmus+], or go to one in the UK [under Turing]?

“I think many students would think twice before coming to the UK,” he adds, warning that a lack of interest from European students and institutions would have a negative impact on British institutions. 

The debate around whether Turing will work also feeds into the political question that has underlined much of the Brexit process: who needs who more, the UK or Europe? The scheme, and its confused introduction, has already led Nicola Sturgeon to accuse the British government of “cultural vandalism”.

The Turing scheme also looks like it will not adequately rectify one of the main problems with Erasmus+: that for many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, taking part in an exchange programme is simply not a financially viable option, even with dedicated grants.

Research from 2006 by Souto-Otero and Andrew McCoshan, which looked at the characteristics of Erasmus students, showed that the majority of students who participate come from wealthier backgrounds, while a 2019 EU report revealed financial obstacles were the most frequent disadvantage for students on the scheme.

“I think that, if I was just on the Erasmus grant, I wouldn’t have been able to live, happily at least,” says Adam Clarke, a former student who supplemented his 2016 grant by working in a French school. “The financial side of things is probably something that holds a lot of British students back.”

Clarke, who was forced to live on savings and help from his parents after having his first Erasmus+ payment delayed, adds that the EU scheme isn’t perfect. “But I think that a lot of [the Turing scheme] is just about making sure that we’ve got something that’s different to what the EU’s got… I think [the government] rushed it.”

One of the greatest questions looming over the new Turing scheme is how long it will last. The £110m committed to the scheme for 35,000 places – just over £3,000 per student – is only guaranteed for the upcoming academic year.

“There’s that risk of isolation… you become competitive through collaboration these days,” says Souto-Otero.

“Why would you [universities] put in place and look for these bilateral agreements… when you only have a guarantee that you will have this in place for one year?” he asks. He adds that the scheme’s financial uncertainty will not only impact British institutions, but also the universities across the world that the programme hopes to entice.

“It will be nice to see how many new partnerships with Harvard and MIT come out of these £3,000 per student [grants]… good luck with that.”

[See also: How to remake Britain – In search of common values]