Lords quiz government on UK replacement for Erasmus

Peers questioned how the scheme would encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate

Members of the House of Lords have questioned the government plan to replace the Erasmus scheme with a UK taxpayer-funded alternative – with a peer querying the feasibility of a replacement enacted “without reciprocity from our EU partners”.

The UK-EU trade deal agreed in December brought to an end the UK’s participation in the Erasmus exchange programme. Ministers have announced plans for an alternative, which is “global in outlook”, to replace it this coming autumn. Current Erasmus exchanges will elapse at this point, but a government spokesperson assured peers that the £100-million, UK-funded alternative, named the Turing scheme, would provide places for 35,000 students to pursue foreign exchange programmes in the 2021/22 academic year.

Susan Garden told parliament’s upper chamber: “We had assurances from the prime minister and government ministers that after Brexit, we would continue to be part of Erasmus, yet more broken promises from the shameless and incompetent government. How does the minister see the Turing scheme, without reciprocity with our EU partners, replacing the life-changing opportunities afforded by Erasmus?”

Stephen Parkinson, the spokesperson for the government, blamed the EU. “The ideas that we advanced in the spirit of compromise to try and reach a deal that was good value for money fell on deaf ears,” he told Lady Garden.

In January last year, prime minister Boris Johnson assured MPs: “There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. We will continue to participate.”

The Turing scheme, named after World War Two computer scientist Alan Turing, is open to countries outside of the EU 27 member nations.

Unlike Erasmus, Turing will not cover the cost of overseas students coming to the UK, nor will it strike waiver agreements with overseas universities on tuition fees. Erasmus+, however, removes the requirement to pay fees on exchanges, meaning that studying abroad costs no more than domestic study. It also provides a small grant for travel and other costs associated with relocating.

The cost of relocating to a university in Asia or Northern America could disincentivise UK students to travel further aboard without grant assistance from the UK exchequer.

The ideas that we advanced in the spirit of compromise to try and reach a deal that was good value for money fell on deaf ears
– Stephen Parkinson, Conservative

Janet Royall asked Lord Parkinson for guarantees the UK government would cover all students costs, as they would under Erasmus, to ensure disadvantaged students are not deterred from applying.

Parkinson said the government was “working directly with educational institutions to make sure that people are able to take up those opportunities”, adding “and we’ll be providing additional funding for disadvantaged students to cover, for instance, the cost of passports or visas or for students with disabilities to, for instance, undertake preparatory visits to make sure that all the necessary accommodations can be can be made for them”.

Alex Broers, a crossbencher and former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Erasmus is as much about students coming to the UK as duties are students going overseas. Indeed, I believe we’ve been receiving twice the number of students as we sent away, which is a tribute to our university and effectively balances the cost of our students going abroad.

“So surely the Turing’s scheme must provide the means to continue this balanced exchange of students and their teachers and those involved in coming up with innovations needed to keep our economy competitive?”

Parkinson told Lord Broers the government international education strategy would “continue to build on the number” of overseas students studying in the UK.

Hugh Trenchard, a Conservative hereditary peer, asked how the government will help British universities replace their connections with their European partners “especially given that the numbers of incoming students from China may decline”. Parkinson pointed to the government appointment of former University of Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith as International Education champion as evidence of this effort.

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