Friday 8 January 2021 6:00 am

The Imitation Game: Turing Scheme could be even better than Erasmus

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official

The UK’s final and definitive secession from the European Union has caused the gnashing of Remainer teeth for a hundred reasons, but one of the most prominent in the past week or so has been the end of British participation in the Erasmus+ student exchange programme. 

This pan-EU project allows students from member states to spend an academic year at one of 4,000 institutions across the Continent, not only taking part in formal learning programmes but also experiencing the “soft power” of cultural exchange.

Erasmus+ costs its members about €15 billion from 2014 to 2020, though that will double to €30 billion for the period 2021-27.

It always seemed unlikely that the UK would continue to participate after leaving the EU; moreover, the programme has attracted valid criticisms which its supporters have not always been able to answer.

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Erasmus has been dominated by the well-off middle classes, having very little reach to lower socio-economic groups, ethnic minorities or those in vocational education; those who participate from outside the university sector tend to spend much less time abroad than their peers.

Moreover it is (by definition) limited to mainly EU countries, and so has preserved in aspic the economic order of its foundation in the mid-1980s. Even one of its founding fathers, Franck Bianchieri, has long argued that it needs updating.

The UK government’s response to the accusations of cultural vandalism is the Turing scheme. This  £100 million per annum programme will allow 35,000 British students to study at universities across the world, starting in September 2021. Turing will explicitly be aimed in part at students from disadvantaged backgrounds, opening up the cultural and linguistic benefits of study abroad to a wider cohort than Erasmus. Organisations have been invited to bid for funding in the next few months; successful applications will be given money for administering the scheme and students given grants to support their studies.

The international director of Universities UK, Vivienne Stern, has described Turing as “a fantastic development”, while Sir Steve Smith, long-time vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and the government’s international education champion, has predicted it will “make real our commitment to Global Britain”. 

The embattled education secretary, Gavin Williamson, identified two of the key features of Turing compared to its predecessor: wider socio-economic participation, and broader international reach, taking in institutions across the world.

There is no doubt that the Turing scheme faces challenges. The timescale is ambitious, with the first students expected to be in lecture halls (or on Zoom links?) in ten months’ time. There is as yet no central administration to organise exchanges, and the uncertainty of any de novo scheme hovers above it. In the current educational climate, it is possible that students will be reluctant to take the risk of an untested programme.

However, there are reasons for optimism too. 

The international focus is encouraging: a brief examination of the current QC ranking of the world’s top universities shows only one EU institution, the Technical University of Munich, scrapes into the top 50 (at number 50) and there are only a further 6 in the top 75. The centre of gravity for higher education excellence is outside continental Europe, in the US, the UK and the Far East, so British students can set their sights much higher than Erasmus allowed.

In trade and economic terms, the biggest single investors in the UK are Japan and the US, not any of our erstwhile EU partners, while we invest more in the US than we do in France, Germany and the Netherlands combined, with Japan also a significant recipient of British investment. 

So if we want our students to have educational and cultural experiences which reinforce existing economic relationships, then again, the EU is not the most significant partner.

The government’s trade priorities also seem to emphasise relationships other than within Europe. 

The international trade secretary, Liz Truss, has garnered considerable credit for agreeing trade deals with 57 countries in 2020 (most roll-over deals from EU membership); particular prominence has been given to Canada, Japan, Singapore and Kenya, while talks are well underway with Australia and New Zealand. That points to a new focus in the Anglosphere and the Far East, and it would be no surprise to see UK students following the government’s pointing finger.

This is superficially a manichaean debate. Those who voted remain and still pine for those days will grieve for Erasmus and dismiss its hastily constructed replacement, while Brexiteers will welcome the embrace of the open seas and British relationships beyond the EU. But a sober analysis suggests that Turing has, at least, some promise.

If it can democratise study abroad and open up opportunities rather than reinforcing privilege, as well as bolstering new or rekindled economic relationships, then that is something we should all be able to support. 

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