It is all change. Almost a year ago today, prime minister Boris Johnson stood in parliament to reassure MPs there was “no threat” to UK participation in Erasmus+. What a difference 12 months make.
In those final procellous days of 2020, between wall-to-wall Covid alerts, the Brexit trade-deal negotiations crossed the finished line with little fanfare. On Boxing Day, a perfunctory Department for Education (DfE) press release emerged, confirming Erasmus+ as a victim of the Treasury’s cost-benefit analysis of the deal.
For its bitterly disappointed proponents, the loss of Erasmus+ is incalculable. Much like EU membership, its demise ends those inestimable benefits of free movement, friendship and mutual exchange.
Within days of the opening of parliament for 2021, members of the House of Lords criticised the decision to disassociate from Erasmus+ and launch a UK alternative by September 2021. The £110-million Turing scheme, which is “global in outlook”, will support 35,000 outbound UK exchange students, ministers promise.
Susan Garden was not convinced: “How does the minister see the Turing scheme, without reciprocity with our EU partners, replacing the life-changing opportunities afforded by Erasmus?”
Stephen Parkinson, spokesperson for the government in the Lords, blamed EU recalcitrance. “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 2019, a committee of peers said the UK would struggle to replicate the benefits of Erasmus membership.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, told reporters this week (Monday 18th January) the Erasmus+ news was “deeply disappointing” and that the Turing scheme was “a very poor replacement”.
“I will be exploring all possible avenues to ensure that Welsh young people do not lose out as a result of this decision, which the UK government did not have to make.”
Williams said she hoped to “influence” and “improve” the Turing scheme – particularly in the field of youth service provision which is “simply not covered by Turing” – during meetings with her counterparts in Westminster. “We are working with colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland to see whether we can retain membership of Erasmus+,” she added.
I think, frankly, universities need to be prepared for a messy first year
– Vivienne Stern, Universities UK International
Prof Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice-chancellor (Europe) at the University of Warwick, says of the day after the announcement: “There was a deep sense of relief that we were to remain a part of Horizon, but at the same time, we felt, frankly, deep disappointment that we would leave Erasmus, and especially when the only reason was one of cost.” Prof Hand believes the diplomatic benefits of Erasmus+ to “global Britain” outweighed the financial considerations.
Universities UK International director Vivienne Stern says she “understands” there is “a lot of grieving” in UK universities for Britain’s association with the European Union student exchange programme.
Although never “resigned” to leaving, Stern says she “could see that the gap between the UK and the EU remained very wide”.
“We were sceptical that the UK negotiating position, of asking for partial and time-limited access to Erasmus, would ever be acceptable to the EU, and we didn’t see any movement in either direction. We were quite aware of the cost of association; the Treasury was never convinced it represents value for money. We could see which way the wind was blowing, although, obviously, we argued, right to the last minute, that the decision should not be made on a purely financial basis.”
Dr Anthony Manning, dean for internationalisation at the University of Kent, accepts the change means a “reduction in opportunity and a widening of opportunity at the same time”.
“Fundamentally, it is about diversity on campus and enabling knowledge transfer through student exchanges. The causes of concern are that we do not yet know the levels of funding available and what administrative support government will offer university departments to manage the exchange process.
“At the University of Kent, we have a large body of students who are keen to undertake academic exchanges to North America, and they have never had the benefit of funded placements. This scheme, potentially, widens participation for low-income students who want to go further afield to countries like the US, or even places like China and Japan.
“We don’t want the Turing scheme to restrict engagement with Europe. Since the referendum, we’ve engaged with European institutions to build bilateral agreements in case Erasmus was withdrawn: we have already invested a lot of time and effort in continuing that work, but the financial support is harder to replace.”
The Turing scheme could be potentially a fantastic resource. But as we know, the UK did not retain Erasmus because of the expense, hence the scepticism
– Anthony Manning, University of Kent
The central (and only) detail of the Turing scheme is a promise of £100 million investment – a sum Stern describes as “a fantastic development”, adding: “We campaigned long and hard for a significant investment in the event Erasmus wasn’t agreed. It was clear to us that there was a real possibility there wouldn’t be anything in its place, or that what was in its place would be small and tightly focused on a very modest number of students.”
Manning agrees: “If the funds are allocated well and it embraces European exchange and international exchange, then the Turing scheme could be potentially a fantastic resource. But as we know, the UK did not retain Erasmus because of the expense, hence the scepticism.”
The issue is niche: in 2017, just over 16,000 UK students participated in Erasmus – while almost 32,000 EU students chose to study in the UK. A petition to rejoin Erasmus+ has attracted only a few thousand signatures: it is unlikely the Turing scheme will become a political hot potato.
A student exchange programme – much like a tango – necessitates a partner. The government has promised that Turing will help UK students, from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, find study and training opportunities abroad, but there is tension over the perceived lack of reciprocity: who are we going to tango with?
As Prof David Carter, head of the international study and language institute at the University of Reading, explained in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute: “A successful exchange agreement needs roughly equal numbers to be mobile in each direction. The UK becomes a less desirable destination for incoming exchange students if partner universities cannot be depended upon to secure funding that will support them.”
On this, Stern has some keen words for HE ears: latest data shows only half of outbound international UK students were part of Erasmus – the rest were outside Europe. “In most cases – except a small number of programmes where there isn’t dedicated bilateral funding to support exchange, like in the case of China – these exchanges are funded through other governments and UK universities investing in mobility. So in that respect, the Turing scheme isn’t new.”
Though, she concedes, “there is no question this will make it more difficult to organise European exchanges because Erasmus is the primary source of funding, and there isn’t a huge amount of flexibility” to do things differently on the continent. She suggests UK universities talk to European universities on an institution-to-institution basis to explore alternative forms of funding.
“I know that this won’t make me popular with many in the university sector, but it wasn’t true under Erasmus that we were funding inbound and outbound mobility: each country put money into a pot. We were not paying for French mobility: the French were paying for French mobility. It will be more difficult, but I just think it’s wrong to argue the UK should now fund exchanges both ways.”
It will be more difficult, but I just think it’s wrong to argue the UK should now fund exchanges both ways
– Vivienne Stern, Universities UK International
Manning worries the system must be “fair and navigable” and attuned to “key timeframes and application deadlines” around the world. He also wants to see UK students from widening participation backgrounds considered front and centre: will the Turing scheme alleviate financial barriers that stop students without parental support from participating? Small grants to assist with expenses may not be enough for the students the government claims to support.
“I think, frankly, universities need to be prepared for a messy first year,” Stern suggests: the ideal time to launch a university exchange timetable was October. “We’re halfway through the academic year now – and it’s going to be messy.”
She urges universities not to despair: “The way that we will persuade Treasury to make multi-year spending commitments is by seizing on the scheme.” Erasmus can afford flexibility to universities and students by offering seven-year spending commitments – to persuade the Treasury of something similar, universities must pinch their noses and “make the best of it”.
The pinch points are easy to imagine. Stern says she has already learned of low-level issues since December. UK Erasmus students prevented from taking placements in Germany “because of the requirements around holding certain amounts of money in your bank accounts when you apply”, for example. The UK visa system, which has “certain requirements around applicants having the financial ability to support themselves”, could create similar barriers.
The ever-perspicacious Stern, who has lobbied on behalf of universities and is privy to government thinking, said she is “very happy” with the as-yet-unreleased parts of the Turing scheme. More detailed plans are to be released “in a matter of weeks”, she says, albeit hopefully.
“All of the details that we’ve heard behind-the-scenes, which we hope will be in the public domain soon, stack up to something that doesn’t look bad to me.”
Warwick University is, by Prof Hand’s description, a “very European university”, in a “microcosm of other European universities”. Leveraging its existing partnerships will be crucial to maintaining a foot on the continent.
Warwick has funding positioned to cover the 2021-22 academic year – offering Prof Hand and his team vital breathing space until September 2022. Time is of the essence, he says: “The late announcement doesn’t give us lots of time to put in place something that’s going to be complex to administer: it is made more complex by the fact that there is no immediate reciprocity or existing bilateral agreements.”
Prof Hands says Warwick will soon open applications for its undergraduate global excellence scholarship, which is open to students around the world and will award 250 tuition fee grants, ranging up to full tuition. The scholarships are part of Warwick’s offer to attract inbound international students.
“We also have a strategic partnership with Monash University, for example, and send exchange students back and forth, albeit virtually at the moment. There is scope to replicate that agreement. And we do, of course, have links with universities in many other parts of the world, including in China, and they are growing faster than ever.” There is space for universities to develop their bespoke exchange programmes, he agrees.
We have a strategic partnership with Monash University, for example, and send exchange students back and forth, albeit virtually at the moment. There is scope to replicate those agreements globally
– Prof Seàn Hand, University of Warwick
In his capacity, Prof Hand is an academic leader of the EUTOPIA European-funded university alliance, which runs for three years with EU money. The fate of EUTOPIA remains uncertain: will the UK government, as former university minister Chris Skidmore once assured Warwick, agree to maintain this fledgeling concept?
Warwick was also one of the three UK universities (along with Edinburgh and Essex) to become involved in the European Universities initiative, funded through Erasmus+ in its pilot stage. The future of this remains to be assured. Hand also questions “essentially how could a UK university have a legal presence inside Europe and the EU” and comply with rules on both sides of the Channel.
Beyond Turing, there are changes to fee status to be considered. Royal Holloway was quick off the blocks to announce that “for eligible EU students” starting their course in September 2021, “we will award a fee reduction scholarship which brings your fee into line with the fee paid by UK students”. This offer applies the duration of the course.
Manning confirms Kent is having similar conversations, “however, it comes at a time when university finances are under more pressure than ever has been, so reducing fees is something which is challenging”.
As the UK plots its independent course, will ministers prove that divorcing European institutions was worth it all in the end? Perhaps time, and Turing, will tell.