Like all other Modern Languages students in the UK, I couldn’t wait for my Year Abroad. Although it was cut short by coronavirus, I spent six months in the beautiful university town of Tübingen in south west Germany. I was able to study things I never could at my home university, explore a region I’d never visited before, and speak German every day. From the time we apply to university to study languages, we’re always told that the Year Abroad will be the best part of your degree, where you fully immerse yourself in a new culture, become more confident and independent and make global connections that last a lifetime. For me, this was certainly true.
All this was made possible through the UK’s participation in the Erasmus+ programme, which reduces unnecessary barriers to study abroad. Reduced paperwork, waived tuition fees and a generous grant to assist with living costs and travel expenses are only some of the practical benefits that a scheme like Erasmus+ gives to students. Still being able to access the scheme in 2019, after three years of Brexit uncertainty, was a huge relief.
But on December 24th, 2020, British students received an early Christmas present we hoped we’d never get. Despite his commitment to membership in Erasmus+ earlier in the year, Boris Johnson announced the UK would leave Erasmus+, to be replaced by the Turing Scheme. According to a government press release, the new programme is planned to provide around £100m of funding for UK students to travel abroad, with funding focused on disadvantaged students and opportunities for student exchange across the world.
Comparing what we currently know about the Turing Scheme with Erasmus+, it’s clear that it will not be as wide-ranging or as helpful as the former scheme. The Turing Scheme is not a reciprocal arrangement, only supporting outgoing British students and not incoming international students. It isn’t yet clear if this means international students coming to the UK will face additional paperwork, visa requirements, or fees – all of which were mostly removed by Erasmus+. What incentive would a European university have to sign a new exchange agreement with a British university, risking more bureaucracy and hidden costs, when they can just create new Erasmus partnerships across the world? If the UK starts to lose partnerships, local economies risk losing millions of pounds of income per year from international students.
When announcing the scheme, Boris Johnson proudly announced that the scheme would support student mobility across the whole world, not just between the UK and the EU – ignoring the fact that UK universities have just that through Erasmus+. Universities can apply for funding to any partner country, with students able to receive up to €700 per month, plus additional travel expenses and funding for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is not yet known if Turing will be able to match this.
There are also three huge benefits of Erasmus+ that the UK government has not mentioned in relation to Turing. Firstly, how will funding for students be allocated? Erasmus+ groups countries by average cost of living, allowing universities to give students more money if they’re going to a country that is more expensive to live in. This is also coupled with extra funding for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, giving every student financial security, and a fair grant. If the UK government does not adopt a similar approach, only the richest students will be able to afford study abroad – exactly the opposite of what the new scheme intends to do.
Secondly, will Turing provide language education, mirroring Erasmus+ Online Linguistic Support (OLS)? Particularly useful for students who haven’t previously learned a language, this free online support package provides 24/7 access to multi-media language classes, grammar resources, and useful cultural knowledge. I was able to use this to keep my German going on days off, or when I had a few spare minutes on the bus in the mornings. A service like this can give students confidence and vital skills and knowledge without needing to pay for a language course.
Finally, what support will be available for work placements, apprenticeships and schools? Many of my friends at university chose to work abroad, such as in translation agencies, publishing houses or media companies, giving them an unmissable chance to improve their career prospects and language ability – all supported by Erasmus+ funding. By solely focusing on universities, the UK government has ignored the €114.3m spent on vocational mobility projects and the 442 schools partnerships in the UK supported by Erasmus+ between 2014 and 2018. The scheme has given countless young people and communities a chance to build global connections – the UK government’s new scheme will throw all of these, and hundreds of future opportunities, into question.
The Turing Scheme has, so far, provided more questions than answers, and I am deeply worried about future generations of students not getting the support and experiences that I was fortunate enough to have. The loss of Erasmus+ is immense for universities, communities, and students.
The Turing Scheme does have potential to be a positive for students previously left out of Erasmus – but the UK government has a lot of work to do to make sure it is as fair, generous and wide-reaching as the scheme it will replace.