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Time for exchange

Chris Skidmore urges universities to use their autonomy to create a ‘Turing+’ exchange scheme

Brexit legislation often kept me in Westminster during my time as universities and science minister, but I also made several trips to Europe. My singular—perhaps personal—mission was to retain and secure European research partnerships. I was determined to demonstrate that although we were leaving the European Union, we would not be leaving these partnerships behind.

With this in mind, I made association to the Horizon Europe R&D programme for 2021-27 a priority and I even campaigned strongly on the issue after my departure. Plenty of people around me at the time doubted that association would be possible. Yet, in the end, the deal struck by prime minister Boris Johnson in late 2020 managed it, securing the UK’s continued participation in arguably the most important multilateral R&D programme in the world.

The deal also provided the basis for continued cooperation in many other R&D projects, from the Copernicus Earth observation programme to the Euratom nuclear cooperation programme, which ensured the UK’s involvement in the Iter nuclear fusion plant being built in southern France. In all of these, I had worked hard behind the scenes to reassure and convince people that an agreement would be found.

Yet, despite much talk among European politicians that there could be no cherry picking, the deal gave the UK choice. I wasn’t present in government for the final 11 months of the negotiating process, so I have no knowledge of what was or wasn’t said on the subject of the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, but its absence from the deal was surprising given our association to Horizon and other programmes.

Gap in provision

Whatever the merits or demerits of Erasmus+, there is little point wasting time mourning what might have been. Policy requires an eye to be constantly on the future, recognising the need to adapt and deliver. And in the absence of joining the scheme, there is clearly a gap in student provision that needs to be filled.

Back in 2019, I was determined that in the event of ‘no deal’, which would cause our participation in Erasmus+ to end, we would have an equivalent scheme in place. UK students would be able to travel abroad and students from abroad would be able to attend UK universities, with the total envelope for the scheme being set at the equivalent of the cost of Erasmus+. The Tudor historian in me had already ascribed the name of William Caxton, our most famous printer, who spent a sizeable proportion of his time abroad at the Burgundian court and was fluent in several languages, to the scheme.

Alas, the Caxton scheme was not to be. Nor was its reciprocal nature as an actual ‘exchange’. Instead, we have the Turing scheme. This should, in theory, provide excellent opportunities for British students to study abroad, with an expanded list of international destinations to access.

The government has also made clear its desire for the scheme to be readily available to students from low-income backgrounds, confronting an accusation that previous exchange schemes tended to benefit those from affluent backgrounds. And with a sizeable budget—certainly greater than the amount by which UK students benefited from Erasmus+ (discounting the benefit gained by local economies of serving EU students on placements)—on the surface it has enormous potential to succeed.

Opportunities lost

At a time when uptake of modern language degrees has dropped to a historic low, we desperately need a modern languages strategy for post-18 education that helps to establish language placements for students with a wide range of degree backgrounds.

And yet, the form and function of the Turing scheme means a gap remains—not for UK students seeking experiences abroad, but for UK universities and their domestic students who will miss out on the opportunity of having students from different countries coming to study on campus.

Yes, there will be international students, but the flow of students coming on exchange to the UK, whose studies have inspired their travels and led them to new destinations and experiences, and who enhance UK universities’ reputation as global centres of knowledge, will have ceased.

Equally, one of the core principles of higher education is missing: the idea of the learner on a collaborative journey in which participation is reciprocal; students learn together on a course, with their studies enhanced by listening to and learning from the views of their peers.

This is where—despite efforts to provide funding to institutions to cover the loss of Erasmus-related income—Turing needs to look again. Outbound mobility is one thing but, realistically, an exchange can only take place if inbound mobility occurs too.

Options to explore

Higher education does not have to wait for the government to step in. It should flex its autonomy by demonstrating its ability to create an exchange scheme—not in the mould of Erasmus+, but one that will allow European or international students to study for, perhaps, a term rather than a year. The creation of modular-based provision should help, although such a scheme still needs to be financed.

There are two options worth exploring. The first is to use the Turing scheme almost as a down payment on establishing reciprocal agreements with universities abroad that admit Turing students, so that UK universities act in return as host institutions for their students, creating, in effect, a Turing+. The second, possibly more radical, option would be to explore how an exchange scheme might be created together with industry, so that students from abroad could come to the UK to study first for a term or a fixed period before taking up a placement in a company. The company might then help fund the cost of the exchange.

Many details would need to be worked through and many barriers overcome to deliver this, but the idea is worth exploring. After all, how did the Erasmus scheme begin? Certainly not in the corridors of the European Commission at Brussels. Rather, it was dreamt up by Italian academics and started by Italian universities before it was taken up by the EU.

UK universities have the chance to be bold rather than wait timidly for the government to deliver. After all, what is autonomy for if not to benefit students and teachers?

As co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, I am happy to work with anyone interested in creating such a scheme. I’ve already had conversations with several academics and understand that, with final Erasmus+ funding ceasing by 2022, an exchange scheme would be needed from September 2022. This gives time to begin creating a pilot scheme. After all, Erasmus started small and so could a new scheme that allows for inbound mobility. If its success is proved, and companies are able to come on board, who knows where it might lead?

Chris Skidmore is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group and a two-time former minister for universities.