Johanna L. Waters examines the details of the Turing Scheme in the context of existing inequalities within UK study abroad
The Turing Scheme, announced in December 2020, is the UK’s new student mobility programme. It is claimed by the Department for Education to be worth £110 million and is designed to support students attending UK higher education institutions (HEIs), further education colleges, and schools in overseas placements lasting between four weeks and 12 months. UK institutions have to bid for a share of this funding for 2021-2022, with financial support for subsequent years dependent on future spending reviews. The discourse surrounding this scheme clearly aligns with the content of the government’s recently updated international education strategy, which emphasises the UK’s ‘global ambition’ and desire for global success. The government explicitly pits the Turing Scheme against the former Erasmus+ programme in marketing materials, claiming it to be superior on multiple fronts – global rather than EU-focussed, targets all students, and facilitates travel anywhere in the world – as the data show that more privileged students were more likely to take advantage of Erasmus placements and that Erasmus was limited to partner countries.
In what follows, I reflect upon the issue of (in)equalities, within the higher education system specifically, and how and why the new scheme may exacerbate pre-existing differences in student access to study abroad opportunities. I draw out some of the broader implications of the new scheme in terms of its ability to offer opportunities for study abroad to a more (socio-economically) diverse range of UK students and to fulfil a globally-oriented UK educational agenda.
Favouring wealthy students?
The newly-launched Turing Scheme website and associated documents stress one aim above all others: to provide opportunities to study anywhere in the world to those from less advantaged backgrounds (defined by the government as those with an annual household income of £25,000 or less). Widening participation would seem to be an important goal of the programme, which is, of course, admirable and few people would disagree with its sentiment. However, the details of the Turing Scheme reveal a number of issues that could mitigate the possibility of truly disadvantaged students being able to study overseas without additional support either from family, friends, or their HEI. The most publicised disadvantage of Turing (vis-à-vis Erasmus+) is the fact that it doesn’t cover tuition fees at the host institution. On this issue of international tuition fees, a government website states, “As with Erasmus+, we expect tuition fees to be waived by host universities.” There is no discernible basis, however, for this expectation. The government does not seem to be proposing that UK HEIs waive the tuition fees of incoming international students, so it is unclear why partner institutions would agree to waive tuition fees for those coming from the UK. Although they may do this, if a reciprocal arrangement can be agreed, this cannot be assumed as a basis for the success of the Turing programme. As we know, the scheme is not like Erasmus+, which is Europe-wide and centrally managed by the European Commission. Turing, on the other hand, concerns only outgoing UK students and UK HEIs who have managed to agree individual institutional arrangements with potential partner HEIs overseas. It will operate on a very different basis.
Is it likely that shorter placements will be more appealing to disadvantaged students?
Other issues concerning finances remain unresolved. Funding through the Turing Scheme is given to HEIs of £315 per participant (up to 100 students, after which when the amount is reduced to £180). In addition, students will receive a cost-of-living allowance of £545 per month for the most expensive destinations for up to eight weeks, dropping to £380 per month after that (for up to 12 months in total). This is said to be on par with Erasmus+. Students deemed disadvantaged may claim an additional £110 per month and can also apply for a grant towards travel costs (a similar travel grant was not available through Erasmus+). Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that this funding will cover the total cost to the student of a period abroad. HEIs and students themselves (and their families) will need to find additional finances to make the scheme work. Students with additional educational needs can apply for extra support, but this relates only to support for their disability and not to offset costs in other areas such as travel costs or cost of living. No additional provision is provided to support ethnic minority students, unlike Erasmus+. As was noted recently in The Conversation, many less advantaged students have to work part time to fund themselves, or they may act as carers to others, making a period abroad untenable. At the same time, the Turning scheme does support shorter placements of four weeks; whereas the minimum time abroad under the Erasmus scheme was two months for work placements. Is it likely that shorter placements will be more appealing to disadvantaged students? Perhaps; only time will tell.
Institutional bias and competitive bidding
Additionally, there are potential further barriers to inclusion when we consider how the new scheme will be administered and operated in the context of the university sector. UK HEIs exist within a global hierarchy of institutions and institutional cultural capital. Students from wealthy backgrounds in the UK are still more likely to attend the most prestigious universities. One question worth considering then is, what is the extent to which the new Turing Scheme will favour elite universities and, thereby, continue to grant more opportunities for study abroad to more privileged students?
At first glance, the new scheme significantly advantages HEIs that have existing relationships with overseas partners and well-established in-house administrative support for study abroad. These are likely to be the better funded, more prestigious HEIs. Institutions have been given a very short turnaround time to pull their bids together for the Turing Scheme, inevitably favouring institutions (and their students) who have exchange and partnership arrangements already in place, and those larger and better funded institutions with the necessary administrative capacity.
Where students are able to go will depend on the institutional clout of their home university
According to the Turing Scheme guide, the programme will offer placements on a global scale and “provide funding for the mobility” of students. In fact, the scheme does not offer placements; that burden falls upon universities themselves to arrange and administer. Where students are able to go will depend on the institutional clout of their home university. Ivy League universities in the US, for example, will not countenance an exchange with a significantly less prestigious UK university (based on inevitably flawed international league tables and the like). Consequently, students already advantaged by attending a highly ranked UK university will be more able to attend a higher ranked overseas institution during their study abroad placement, on the basis of these equivalences and arrangements.
The Erasmus scheme was non-competitive, whereas the Turing scheme is based on a competition between institutions. Presently, institutions do not know how these bids will be judged and on what basis. If the assessment involves, in part, favouring institutions with higher numbers of widening participation students, it is possible that some of the advantages accruing to larger, more prestigious HEIs outlined above, might be diluted. However, if success is based on other criteria (such as the ability to develop a large and convincing bid in a short time), the opposite may be true.
As I write this piece, the Welsh government have announced a new international learning exchange programme designed explicitly to replicate arrangements under Erasmus+, but also include travel further afield. The scheme will run initially from 2022 to 2026 and will include an investment of £65 million by the Welsh government. Interestingly, the programme emphasises the fundamental principle of reciprocity, funding the costs of incoming as well as outgoing students.
It is this lack of reciprocity that appears to be the most limiting of all factors when considering the implications of the Turing Scheme. Erasmus+ facilitated mutual benefit, understanding, and exchange. It was, in part, about soft power – developing a sense of Europeanness amongst students, but also at the same time, a sense of globalness, outward-facingness, and a common humanity. In contrast, Turing seems to face inward and to assert the superiority of the UK and UK students, resting on an assumption that overseas partners, wherever they are, will welcome UK students. The lack of support for incoming students ignores the huge value that international students bring to UK HEIs – how, presently, and in the past, they have enriched and defined UK educational institutions and the UK economy. International education is political! Perhaps, as it develops, the Turing Scheme will find a way to support incoming students, just as the Welsh government have deemed to do. To ignore this relationship is not to pursue a global ambition, as the Department for Education asserts, but to thwart it.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
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