Dr Neil Hudson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border. Neil is a veterinary surgeon and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
As an MP who has worked as a university senior lecturer, I don’t mind admitting that I was a disappointed when I first heard that the UK would not be taking part in Erasmus+. Although the scheme wasn’t perfect, it still was an amazing opportunity for our students. I’d seen first-hand how it could create opportunities which broadened their horizons – and I worried about our ability to create a domestic alternative that would truly match its ambition.
The importance of students being able to exchange experiences in different institutions is a win-win for them and academics. I know from personal experience that when your students are placed in international institutions and vice versa this is a great way of fostering teaching and research collaborations in both places. In the midst of a global pandemic, it was too easy to see that this could have been deprioritised.
The reality is that international partnerships have never been more important to universities. International students – essential not just for the diversity of outlook they bring to campus, but for the financial contribution they make – have proved unexpectedly loyal during Covid-19, averting vice-chancellors’ worst-case scenarios.
But it cannot be taken for granted that this will continue, especially as Asian universities rise up the world rankings and the US seeks to once again become a more welcoming studying destination. Academic conferences, a staple of building international networks, have looked very different over the last year, with fewer opportunities to forge the personal connections on which partnerships are made.
For universities, this can be particularly challenging. An international outlook is part of their core ethos. From Covid-19 to climate change, it is increasingly clear that the problems facing our world require international solutions. And as a former university academic and admissions dean, I know first-hand that opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to travel abroad are seen as highly important by students when deciding where to study, or in inspiring them to reach their full potential.
It’s for this reason that I’m delighted that the Government has moved so quickly to set up the Turing scheme. It is a genuinely ambitious offer that has been described by Universities UK – no lovers of Brexit – as “a fantastic development”. And in some areas, I am relieved to say it is even better than Erasmus+ was.
Some of the criticisms that have been thrown at the scheme can only be described as inaccurate, misrepresentations of the facts by those not wanting to give something new and ambitious a chance. The monthly cost of living allowance for both schemes is comparable: 370-420 Euro for a typical student under Erasmus+ compared to 390 – 443 Euro (£335-380) for Turing, with similar uplifts for disadvantaged students.
Importantly, under Erasmus+, only those who went to non-EU countries – three per cent of UK participants – received support for travel, whereas in Turing, all disadvantaged students will receive travel support – not just for flights, but for visas, passports and travel insurance – wherever they are going in the world. The suggestion that Turing participants will have to pay tuition fees is also incorrect: mutual fee waivers will be negotiated by each university partnership, as is absolutely standard for HE exchange schemes around the world. This argument also underlies the flawed thinking that the UK should pay for both inward and outward mobilities: an exchange is a partnership, to which both sides contribute, just as all country participants in Erasmus+ paid towards its costs.
There are some ways in which the schemes are different. The most disappointing for me personally is that Turing only includes students, not academics or teachers. I know colleagues in HE who will feel this painfully. But equally, I recognise that academics have many other opportunities to travel abroad and, as a Conservative MP committed to the levelling-up agenda, I recognise that we should focus taxpayers’ money on creating opportunities for those who otherwise would not have them, not supporting those who could access support another way.
And set against this are the tremendous advantages of Turing. Most obviously, there is the ability to travel anywhere in the world, not just Europe. European countries will always be our friends and partners, but this scheme will open up new opportunities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia to name but a few. Providing the opportunity to study at the Ivy League, Singapore, Japan, or to forge partnerships, friendships and collaborations with our Commonwealth allies, is something our students will grasp with both hands.
Less talked about, but also important, is the greater flexibility that Turing offers in terms of the length and format of exchanges. The typical average six-month duration of Erasmus+ exchanges meant that the scheme was dominated by certain subject areas such as languages.
To take my own subject, veterinary medicine, it is difficult in a professional degree to spend a whole year abroad – but far more feasible to go for an eight-week study or clinical work placement. Although year-long exchanges will still be available, the greater flexibility and increased choice of destinations will open up demand to a much wider variety of students from different disciplines, which can only be a good thing.
In short, from an initial position of scepticism, I have found Turing to be an unexpected bonus. It is another example, like the fantastic trade deals we have signed, our hosting of COP26 this year or the ambitious relaunch of our
international education strategy, of how for this Government “Global Britain” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a strategy. And it’s one which I know our world-class universities and ambitious students will embrace.