The challenge of replacing Erasmus+ with the Turing programme


The hue and cry over United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to pull the UK out of the Erasmus+ programme as part of the Christmas Eve free-trade Brexit deal with the European Union has been deafening, with few academics or media pundits having a good word for the UK’s replacement Turing programme.

Dr Hywel Ceri Jones, who was the European Commission’s director for education, training and youth when Erasmus was founded in 1987, described the decision to end the UK’s participation in the Erasmus programme as “a severe blow to young people” and called on the Scottish and Welsh governments to force the UK parliament to reconsider and reject pulling Great Britain out of Erasmus+.

The Irish government has already stepped in and pledged funding to enable students in Northern Ireland – which is part of the United Kingdom – to continue to participate in what is largely seen as the world’s most effective student mobility programme.

And a number of continental European universities contacted by University World News are already thinking about how to continue cooperating with UK higher education.

But some mix sadness with confusion about why UK commentary is almost entirely focused on the loss to student mobility, which is being replaced in part by the UK’s substitute Turing scheme. They are just as concerned at the end of UK involvement in many ambitious collaborative higher education projects, such as the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree and the 8,500 staff exchanges which took place between the UK and other Erasmus+ member countries in 2018-19.

Emmy Arts, head of the international relations department of Ecole Centrale de Marseille in France and an Erasmus expert for the past decade, mostly with the Dutch and French national Erasmus agencies, said the EU programme covers so much more than just student mobility, including important areas for employability, such as internships.

Among the key actions in Erasmus+ on top of student mobility are:

• Strategic partnerships to develop and share innovative practices between actors in education, training, youth, civil society, or from different socio-economic sectors.

• Knowledge alliances to create large-scale partnerships between higher education institutions and businesses to help modernise establishments through innovation and creativity and by adapting qualifications to changes in employment.

• Sector skills alliances to enable cooperation between vocational training establishments and companies and help create new sectors and modernise training practices and social innovation.

• Capacity building in the field of higher education through transnational cooperation projects, based on multilateral partnerships, primarily between higher education institutions from programme and eligible partner countries.

• Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree, a prestigious, integrated, international study programme, jointly delivered by an international consortium of higher education institutions. Currently, the UK is involved in 19 Erasmus Mundus ventures with European partners.

Arts, who is currently doing a PhD with CEPED, Université de Paris on the impact of crises on international cooperation within higher education, told University World News: “While the loss to mobilities is important, I believe the impact of the UK leaving the programme will be even bigger than expected.

“The UK has been an important Erasmus partner for France for many years. It is always in the top three for staff mobility, together with Spain and Italy, with between 300 and 350 staff mobilities a year.

“For internships, the UK is the top destination with between 3,200 and 3,800 taking part each year.

“The UK is also one of the top three favoured destinations for French students studying abroad, with approximately 4,200 and 4,400 students taking part in exchanges each year – two-thirds being outgoing French students compared with a third coming the other way from England.”

Imbalance in inward and outward mobilities

The imbalance between incoming and outgoing exchanges is one of the bugbears of the Brexiteers and UK government critics of Erasmus, as Anne Corbett pointed out on 1 January 2021 in her critique for University World News of why the UK ditched Erasmus+.

For despite a slow but steady rise in outward mobility by British participants, EU data has shown considerably more EU students and trainees taking advantage of Erasmus grants to study or work in the UK than UK students or trainees opting for a placement abroad through the programme.

The latest figures for 2018-19 show 18,305 outgoing students and trainees (9,993 students and 8,106 trainees) from the UK using the Erasmus+ scheme compared with 30,501 incoming students and trainees.

Of course, that’s just part of a bigger picture, with Erasmus+ grants also paying €56.6 million (US$70 million) for strategic partnerships involving the UK and further funding for collaborative and cooperation projects in fields such as education, youth and sport, making a total grant of €144.6 million (US$178 million).

That works out at around £130 million – only £30 million more than the £100 million (US$136 million) pledged for the new Turing scheme by the UK government, which appears restricted to “funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021”, although it is not clear yet over what period the £100 million will be spent.

£100 million for UK mobility

A press release from the UK’s Department for Education on 26 December 2020, said the new Turing scheme would “target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country”.

It went on to say that “the programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme, but it will include countries across the world and aims to deliver greater value for money to taxpayers”.

But it is difficult to see how the Turing programme can be described as a commitment to “international exchanges”, as UK international education champion Sir Steve Smith called it in the Department for Education press release of 26 December, if the £100 million only covers outward study and work mobility.

New scheme needs reciprocal flows

Dr Janet Ilieva, director of the UK-based research consultancy, Education Insight, said: “The most difficult component of such a new scheme is to set up a multilateral infrastructure for mobility, which will facilitate reciprocal flows and exchanges of students, operate on tuition fee waiver principles, and recognise credits for the modules studied abroad.

“If the UK higher education institutions are to forge relationships with new partners, due diligence checks need to occur, and while from the published details it is clear that the new mobility scheme will focus on outbound students, inbound student flows are essential for higher education institutions’ internationalisation at home agenda.

“The UK is a high-cost study destination, and inbound visiting students’ cost should not deter those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The UK Department for Education did not respond to a question from University World News about funding for incoming as well as outgoing mobility, as Switzerland provided when it found itself outside the last round of Erasmus+ covering 2014-20.

Widening participation

Defenders of Erasmus+ also query how the new Turing programme will widen participation to disadvantaged students and question its claim that it will be broader in international reach, with Emmy Arts telling University World News that Erasmus+ had already opened up to most of the world in its last round covering 2014-2020.

She also said: “The new Erasmus+ programme for 2021-2027 will be more inclusive, with new scholarships and shorter mobilities having been developed so that cost and duration are no longer an obstacle.”

Paul James Cardwell, professor of law at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, told University World News it is difficult to see where UK students using the Turing programme will go to study abroad beyond non-EU agreements already in place.

“So, I expect most will continue to go on placements within Europe. But lack of funding for incoming students, in contrast to the Swiss shadow scheme, is a problem, especially if demand falls.”

As for the charge made by some critics that Erasmus+ was “a gravy-train” to enable children of the middle classes to spend time abroad at someone’s else expense and embellish their already well-padded CVs, as the journalist Mary Dejevsky reported in a piece for the Independent at the start of the new year, Cardwell agrees that Erasmus was largely used by language degree students.

But the decline in language learning in UK state schools can’t be blamed on Erasmus as an EU programme.

“And ignoring incoming students, as the Turing scheme does, ignores the benefits – pedagogical, financial and soft power – of incoming students experiencing UK higher education,” Cardwell told University World News.

Lessons from Switzerland

Elsewhere in Europe, Switzerland can provide lessons for a country that wants to expand student mobility through its own programme outside Erasmus+.

The country found itself outside the EU mobility programme in 2014 and introduced its own Swiss European Mobility Programme (SEMP), but it decided to pay for both inward and outgoing student and staff mobility.

And it has still managed to continue taking part in some Erasmus cooperation programmes as a partner country outside the EU.

Like the UK, it baulked at the cost of full participation based on paying a proportion of its gross domestic product in the last round of Erasmus+ covering 2014-20. Also, similar to the UK’s Turing scheme, its main interest is student and staff mobility.

Around 21{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of Swiss higher education students take part in outward mobility, but this figure covers more than just mobility through SEMP, as University World News reported in April 2019. This is about three times higher than the UK outward mobility percentage where the goal is to have 13{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of degree students going abroad for work or study.

Despite the challenges, Veronika Favre, exchange programme coordinator for Europe, based at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, told University World News they want to increase exchanges with UK universities.

Last semester concerns over COVID-19 reduced mobility and meant the university only had seven outgoing exchange students studying in the UK in the autumn semester of 2020 and no incoming students from the UK.

“For the spring semester 2021, we have four outgoing students planning to start an exchange in the UK and one professor should come to Fribourg for teaching mobility.

“In the past, we regularly had incoming students from the UK, and we would like to increase our mobility numbers and have them more balanced.

“Our Swiss national agency, Movetia, which manages SEMP at a national level, has told Swiss universities that the UK continues to be considered as a SEMP partner country during the academic year 2021-22. So, we can continue to fund incoming and outgoing activities with the UK partner universities, but whether Switzerland will continue to finance British incoming students after 2021-22 will be decided later on. It is a political question,” she said.

She told University World News: “Student and staff mobility itself is not that hard to organise outside Erasmus+, as European partner universities want to continue to exchange students. To be outside of Erasmus+ is much more a loss for all the other opportunities that Erasmus+ offers, which cannot be replaced that easily.”

Norway wants to maintain UK exchanges

Norway is another country that would like to continue sending and receiving students and staff to and from the UK, Lise Bakke Brøndbo, senior adviser for Erasmus+ and institutional coordinator at Oslo Metropolitan University, told University World News. Norway never joined the EU, but it is a fully paid-up member of the Erasmus+ programme.

Brøndbo said: “The UK has always been very popular with our students and staff and we have already prepared for alternative agreements with many of our UK partners.

“But outside the Erasmus+ programme, it is difficult to see numbers continuing along what we have today for two reasons: one of them is political; the other is the cost at an individual level.

“Norway pays out a huge chunk of money to the Erasmus+ programme, and as a public higher education institution we are obliged by the government to bring back some of that money through our participation in the Erasmus+ programme.

“With UK institutions (apart from those in Northern Ireland) no longer part of Erasmus+, there doesn’t seem to be much political motivation for additional national funding for students and staff to choose the UK as their destination for mobility.”

Norway’s government also introduced a new student mobility white paper in 2020 making EU countries the new main focus, “in particular countries with languages other than English as the official language and to increase our participation in Erasmus+”.

Brøndbo told University World News: “As matters now stand, we are required to look elsewhere for partner institutions, although how we are going to do that is yet to be decided.

“In economic terms, we had hoped for a UK mobility programme similar to the Swiss programme, which catered for both incoming and outgoing students – and staff, come to that!”

Despite Norwegian students having access to very good terms from the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund (Statens lånekasse) to help meet the costs of studying both at home and abroad, many students are very concerned with financial matters and studying abroad often means losing income from part-time work, she told University World News.

“Without the Erasmus+ grant or something similar, more of our students will decide to go elsewhere. For our staff, there is very little money available to go abroad, other than through the Erasmus+ programme and some national schemes linked to national priorities. So we expect staff mobility numbers to the UK will reduce quite considerably.”

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at

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