Despite it being in its infancy, it’s already clear that the UK government’s replacement of the Erasmus+ programme, the Turing Scheme, has fallen considerably short of its promises for educational equality and improved opportunities for disadvantaged students.
I am a student of Spanish and politics, and a year abroad to work or study is compulsory to my degree. When researching the options available to me, especially in Spain, it became clear that the UK government’s decision to discontinue membership of Erasmus+, a programme that has developed connections with 33 European countries, as well as with over 160 countries globally, has made it more financially difficult and administratively complicated for students like me to complete this aspect of the degree. We are not “a global Britain”. We are more insular. And less well off.
While it was a member of the EU, the United Kingdom enjoyed the privileges of the Erasmus+ programme that facilitated the placement of students abroad, to broaden their horizons and help them develop highly valuable skills, something which is attractive for employers.
After the government failed to reach an agreement with the EU in 2020 and refused to settle on a new membership fee, an alternative was devised by Boris Johnson’s government… the Turing Scheme.
Government criticism of the EU’s Erasmus+ programme centred around the claim that students from the most privileged backgrounds were 1.7 times more likely to benefit from studying abroad. But this line of argument falls apart when we look at the root causes of this inequality.
An article published in 2020 outlined how the disparity between ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘privileged’ students in year abroad participation is “shaped by mobility opportunities of… the university in which they are enrolled”, given that the administration of the year abroad programme is “pursued generally at faculty level”, rather than by an independent body.
In the UK, students from privileged economic and educational backgrounds disproportionately attend Russell Group universities, and thus benefit from these universities’ more developed connections, facilitating their year abroad. An absence of such a variety of connections within other universities vastly limits the likelihood of being able to participate in the programme.
Consequently, the UK had a lower rate of student mobility than Germany, France, Italy and Spain, as part of Erasmus+. The inequality the government has criticised is not a product of a corrupt EU programme but the direct result of our long unequal national education system. Leaving Erasmus+ has not fixed that. Nor was it ever going to.
Uptake in the first two years is disappointing. During the last year of the Erasmus+ Programme (2018/19), over 54,000 participants from the UK enjoyed the benefits of the year abroad initiative. Sadly, in the last academic year under the Turing Scheme (2022/23) this number had dropped to just over 38,000. Why is this so? Professor Waters of UCL has highlighted the significant barriers that exist for disadvantaged students. These include ability to pay, and limited family connections, hence less familiarity with the bureaucracy of working abroad.
Unfortunately, the Turing Scheme, far from helping to close the gap in educational inequality in this country, fails to provide sufficient financial and administrative support, and so has only worked to widen it.
A lack of financial support for students
In February 2022, Brexit Spotlight reported that the Turing Scheme could be potentially more generous than Erasmus+: Turing promised larger maintenance loans of between £335 and £380 per month, as well as an extra £110 per month for disadvantaged students.
However, universities have warned students that these maintenance loans could be greatly reduced (to just £245 per month) for those who choose to work during their year abroad – which, as Johanna Waters found, is far more likely to affect working-class students than their middle-class counterparts.
While it may seem logical to provide reduced loans for those choosing to work, under the presumption that pay from the internship will make up the difference, this is wildly misguided. The majority of student work opportunities for their year abroad are unpaid. Some even require students to pay to work! And even those that are paid are “not sufficient” to cover the cost of living, with average pay for an internship for students in France, for example, being just €3.90 per hour.
Before, working during the year abroad was a way for less privileged students to finance the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of taking part in Erasmus+. Now, this is no longer the case. Hilary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, expressed her frustration at the blatant lack of support that the Conservative government is providing. Is it really any wonder that participation in the year abroad programme has dropped so significantly?
As regards those choosing to study, while the government has assured that they expect universities to waive tuition fees, this does not always happen. In such a situation, it is clear that only students who have access to additional, private, funds would be able to finance such a year.
All bark and very little bite
Jane Racz, the former director of Erasmus+ in the UK, said that during the last funding cycle of the programme (2014-2021) the UK received “almost €1bn (£900m)” of the €14.7bn fund – a fund that has since been increased by 56% for the next cycle (2021-2027).
In contrast, during the last academic year, the Turing Scheme offered up £22mn less than what the UK received under Erasmus+. This is even more troubling considering that, so far, the Turing Scheme has been propped up by “leftover” Erasmus+ funding, supplementing year abroad students – a bailout that will simply not exist in future years. With all that in mind, it is doubtful whether government funding for the year abroad programme, during the same period of 2021-2027, will total much over £700mn, falling pitifully short of the potential level of funding the UK could have received had they continued to be part of Erasmus+.
To make things worse, the decision, in 2021, to outsource the administration of the Turing Scheme, away from the world-renowned British Council to Capita Plc, who have a catastrophic record in public sector projects, has caused widespread concern.
Even more barriers
To add to the stress experienced by students, the Turing scheme suffers from its unpredictable annual funding cycles and increased visa complications.
While the Erasmus+ fund is secure for six or seven years at a time, the short-term investment supplied by the government under the Turing Scheme leaves students having to commit to costly placements… before funding is confirmed. Cases of students not receiving their loan until months into their year abroad have shown universities that there is increased financial insecurity with the new programme, and that will undoubtedly either be a considerable deterrent or impossible barrier for many students.
Moreover, the chaotic reality of a post-Brexit visa minefield has resulted in thousands of students being unable to get visa approval for a number of European countries.
Before we left the Erasmus+ scheme, Spain and Germany were the first and third most popular places for students to go on their year abroad… now astronomical costs and “seemingly never-ending requirements” have made it nearly impossible for students to go to either country.
The countries most affordable to get to are behind a barrier of convoluted visa requirements, forcing students to look elsewhere – to countries that are extremely expensive to travel to, adding another layer of financial stress. It is no surprise that students believe that the Turing Scheme is “is just widening inequality and making students choose their activities… on the basis of their own financial background” rather than what would be most beneficial to their development. Consequently, the European Students Union (ESU) passed a resolution in May urging the UK government to rejoin Erasmus+ and abandon the “poor substitute” that they have adopted.
And this monumental downgrade has had significant impacts outside our educational system.
Turing is a one way street
Robbing the country of the Erasmus+ programme has already cost us millions and will continue to for years to come.
The Conservative Party perpetuates a myth that the Turing Scheme is less expensive than the Erasmus+ programme. At the time of negotiations, Johnson maintained that the £200mn annual membership fee of staying part of Erasmus+ was unjustifiable, thus causing an end to the UK’s participation. Yet the reality is much to the contrary.
A report by the European Commission found that between 2015 and 2020 the UK received 148,089 students and trainees, as well as over 20,000 teachers, as part of the exchange programme that Erasmus+ offered. These people were vital customers to the education, services and hospitality industries that now find themselves struggling, naturally, without the contribution of around £420mn to the UK economy per year that was generated by the international exchange aspect of Erasmus+.
The Turing Scheme offers no such exchange.
The UK economy is missing out on an injection of what is estimated to be around £243mn per year simply because the Conservative Party prioritised ideology over the welfare of our economy. They would sooner cut ties with a programme, simply for its European affiliation, than see it continue to be a source of income and cultural diversity for towns and cities across the country.
Limiting employment opportunities
On top of that, it is limiting employment opportunities for many young people in the UK.
Eden Kulig, Labour councillor for Harrow, explains how these opportunities might not be a deciding factor for those from wealthy backgrounds. But for her, from a less privileged background, whose family had no history of university participation, it “made a real difference” to her education and future opportunities.
The range of employability, communication and social skills obtained on a year abroad can prove invaluable for one’s career prospects and can potentially be life-changing. While our government acts to limit the opportunities of UK students, participation in Erasmus+ projects an “ever-growing number of participants”, encouraging greater multiculturalism, increased integration and improved employment prospects for those involved.
This government’s refusal to expand such opportunities, and even limit them for those less privileged, demonstrates a clear lack of commitment to their supposed goal of levelling up.
Depriving the nation of financial investment…
Adding intense stress and insecurity to the lives of young students…
Perpetuating systemic inequality within the nation’s education and employment…
The Tories’ replacement for Erasmus+ has either failed on its promises or was never truly meant to deliver them in the first place.
See also the perspective of another student, of EU origin.