Ideas on Europe

The UK’s Turing Scheme: replacing Erasmus+ ? - Ideas on Europe

The UK’s Turing Scheme: replacing Erasmus+ ? - Ideas on Europe

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Paul James Cardwell, from City, University of London, in England.

We have heard a lot this year about the decision of the UK government not to participate any more in the Erasmus programme of the EU, and to create its own version, the “Turing Scheme”.

Yes – the decision was made last Christmas. A few days before the UK left the post-Brexit transition period, it decided not to seek Erasmus membership as a third country, such as Norway or Turkey.

But, Paul, why not? Isn’t the Erasmus programme seen as a success?

The stated reason was the cost. Over the last 30 years, Erasmus has grown from being a University student exchange system and now covers a huge variety of different schemes. It has been used as means to plug skills gaps and tackle unemployment, particularly amongst young people. For the UK, since free movement no longer applies for workers, the government wanted to ‘cherry pick’ parts of it but this approach was not successful.

Although there are many success stories about Erasmus, there is a perception in the UK that it was not used as much as it could have been. There are a number of reasons for this, including low levels of foreign language ability. There was also a perception – which I think is a typical UK argument – that Erasmus was mainly used by better-off, middle-class students rather than those who would really benefit from the funds.There is, however, a recognised need for a system to support student mobility, including with funding to make it happen. At the same time, the UK government needs to capitalise on its ‘Global Britain’ approach. So, the aim is to go beyond Erasmus and offer opportunities to North America, Asia, Australasia and beyond.

So what is the new scheme? And why is it called “Turing”?

The new scheme was rapidly launched in 2021, and we are still getting to grips with how it works. It is named after Alan Turing, who was a ‘code braker’ during WWII but who was convicted of homosexuality after the war and underwent chemical castration. Only recently has his story become more well-known in the UK – there was a 2014 film with Benedict Cumberbatch “The Imitation Game”, he now appears on the new £50 note.

The new scheme has some features which mirror those of Erasmus, but with some important differences. The scheme only funds students at UK universities who go away to study elsewhere. There is no funding under the scheme for those coming to the UK. 

Students are likely to depart under established agreements with institutions across the world, including many in Europe. The government has been keen to stress that this allows students to go to newer destinations, e.g. in developing countries, but the lack of funding for incoming students is going to be a challenge to turn these into ‘exchanges’. The same might be said for European students, who also now need a visa for UK as well as seeking alternative funding.

Under Erasmus, universities cannot charge tuition fees. But under the Turing Scheme, there is nothing to stop receiving universities from doing so – this is not going to help the poorer students from the UK. The fund also does not allow visits by staff to make sure the links are working and so on.

So, how is the scheme working so far?

It is difficult to tell. For this academic year we are of course facing a lot of Covid-related disruption, so we wouldn’t expect the same numbers of students to try to go abroad. Also, there are some unspent Erasmus funds by UK universities which have been used – so not everyone will be a “Turing” scholar.

Setting up a new scheme in such a short period of time has been very complicated, and we learned last year that the body responsible will no longer be the British Council (the UK’s cultural and educational body) but a private body with no experience of this area.

Many universities have of course said how pleased they are to receive funds for the scheme. But there is still a lot of doubt as to whether the scheme will work as well as Erasmus, whether more students will benefit and if it is a cost-efficient and beneficial scheme for the taxpayer. It is likely that we won’t fully know the answer to these questions under a few years from now.

Thank you very much, Paul, for this insight into yet another consequence of Brexit.
“Ideas on Europe” will be back after the holidays, each Friday morning, as usual.