The Turing scheme, launched on March 12 by the UK government, is touted as a replacement for the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, to which UK students no longer have access following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union last December.. Under the new programme, students will be provided with funding to put towards the cost of study or work placements abroad – via partnerships their home institution has brokered with institutions around the world.
Erasmus started in 1987 as a network of 11 European countries, and, since rebranding in 2014 as Erasmus+, has expanded to 23 more, with some limited connections still further afield. Turing, meanwhile, is intended to allow students to travel globally. Michelle Donelan, the universities’ minister and education secretary Gavin Williamson have said the new scheme aims to improve social mobility and enable particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access the benefits such travel brings.
But the Turing Scheme has been criticised for not covering tuition fees. The funding is intended to go towards living costs (with grants of up to £490 per month, depending on which country they will travel to) and, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds only, travel costs. Under the Erasmus+ scheme all participants were entitled to a travel grant. The government has said it expects tuition fees to be waived by the host institution, as part of a reciprocal arrangement with their UK partner university.
Historically, it is true, poorer students were less likely to take advantage of Erasmus than their more affluent peers. But it is misleading to suggest, as the government has, that no progress had been made towards this goal in the updated Erasmus+.
Over the past decade students from a wider range of backgrounds have taken advantage of the Erasmus+ scheme. In the UK, a notable change came when paid work placements were introduced to Erasmus in 2007. Moreover, further means-tested funding is now available to Erasmus+ students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is also not clear that merely increasing the money available for students to travel will be enough to close the gap. This applies equally to the Turing scheme as it does to the Erasmus+ programme.
Deciding to study abroad relates not just to economic issues but various social factors, too. Key among these is the extent to which a student feels confident about being without family and friends. This, studies suggest, is often related to how much previous experience of travel they have had.
Students from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to have gone on trips with family and school, which in turn means they are more likely to take up travel opportunities offered at university level.
Students with financial constraints (needing to work part-time to support themselves, for example) or other commitments (such as caring for children or parents), however, are less likely to travel. Short-term overseas placements – perhaps for only a week or two – would make it easier for them. But the minimum timeframe required for a Turing scheme trip is four weeks.
And, as travel opportunities have been taken up by a more diverse group of students, so those opportunities have become stratified. Research has found that people from the most affluent families tend to monopolise schemes of the highest academic quality, in the most prestigious institutions.
As well as ensuring as wide a group of students as possible is able to benefit from the Turing scheme, the government and individual institutions must also make sure that all placements and exchanges are of equally high quality and allocated on an equitable basis. But the scheme’s reliance on individual reciprocal agreements between institutions – as opposed to the network that Erasmus+ provides – could limit its ability to do just that.
It is also far from clear that overseas institutions will be willing to enter into such reciprocal fee-waiving agreements. Universities that already participate in the Erasmus+ programme – in Turkey, Iceland, Norway, Serbia and North Macedonia, as well as the 27 EU nations – are unlikely to want to cover the costs of their students travelling to and living in the UK when they can study in any of the Erasmus+ countries at no extra charge.
Outside of the Erasmus+ scheme, reciprocal agreements may be limited to wealthy institutions and wealthy students – those who can self-fund the substantial costs of travelling to and living in the UK. The UK government, however, should bear some ethical responsibility for ensuring the social profile of incoming students is not further restricted.
Institutions across the UK are now applying for Turing funding for 2021-2022. The UK government’s priority in devising this new scheme is clearly to widen participation among students. It remains to be seen whether the funding they’ve allocated – not to mention the agreements between institutions they’re hoping for – will be enough to ensure any student who wishes to can indeed pack their suitcase.