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    The future of Turing

    Most students and universities in the UK opposed their government’s decision to leave the European Union’s Erasmus+ exchange programme and had little confidence that its successor, named after World War II code breaker Alan Turing, would be an acceptable replacement. There are still plenty of doubts about the way the new scheme operates, but it has been far from the disaster that many predicted.

    Unlike Erasmus+, the Turing Scheme offers study destinations beyond the EU, but it is not a classic exchange scheme designed to bring similar numbers to the UK. Some universities have negotiated their own exchange agreements, but the government’s priority was to increase the outbound flow of students, which has always lagged behind the equivalent in most developed countries.

    In its first year, in 2021-2, Turing missed its target of 35,000 placements. With the Covid pandemic yet to end, however, 20,000 was not a bad outcome – still more than the 16,000 British students who used Erasmus+ in its record year. Most of the places were taken by university students, but the scheme also caters for further education colleges and schools.

    In the current year, numbers are up to 41,000 studying or working in 160 different destinations, with applications twice oversubscribed. Half of the top 10 locations are outside the EU, with the United States, India and Canada among the leading group, although France and Spain hosted the largest numbers overall.

    It is the backgrounds of the participants that has pleased the architects of the scheme most. Ministers prioritised the recruitment of more students from disadvantaged groups, and almost 60 percent of the latest cohort come from such families. No equivalent figure was published for Erasmus+, but the proportion is generally accepted to have been lower.

    Robert Halfon, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, says the scheme is “a real game-changer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, empowering them with transformative opportunities abroad, a chance to experience other cultures and learn vital skills for life and work”.

    “It showcases our positive ambition post-Brexit, fostering a global outlook for more students who deserve every chance to thrive,” he adds.

    Professor Sir Steve Smith, the Government’s International Education Champion and former vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, says he has been pleasantly surprised by the level of demand from both students and institutions. “I think the Turing Scheme has been a lot more successful than many people expected,” he says. “In particular, the number of participants coming from disadvantaged groups has been really encouraging – significantly higher than under Erasmus. Going abroad to study can be genuinely life-enhancing for them.”

    A government-commissioned evaluation found that more than half of higher education providers who had previously participated in Erasmus+ had increased the number of international placements offered through the Turing Scheme. But the scheme continues to face criticism over the way it operates and the level of funding for students. It was already compared unfavourably with its predecessor for excluding staff and failing to encourage inward mobility.

    The evaluation, which covered the first year of the scheme, found that 79 percent of universities considered the application process unnecessarily complex and the six-week window for applications too short. Even after efforts were made to streamline the process, only 11 percent thought there was any real improvement. Some students were forced to withdraw from the scheme because places were confirmed too late, while others failed to receive funding until after their return. Turing provides funding for travel costs for disadvantaged students and pays for visas, passports and related travel insurance, but many still found that this did not cover all their costs.

    The Turing Scheme has a budget of £110 million and is guaranteed until 2024-5. The mean duration of overseas placements, in the latest analysis, was 109 days for higher education students, 26 days in further education and seven days for schools.

    Its future is uncertain, dependent on whichever party wins this year’s general election. Labour has said the lack of funding to cover tuition fees undermines the government’s stated commitment to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, while the Liberal Democrats have described the Turing Scheme as “woefully inadequate”.

    The House of Lords European Affairs Committee has called for the UK to rejoin Erasmus+ if a reciprocal element is not added to the Turing Scheme. Lord Hague, a former Conservative leader, said a “two-way flow [of students] is extremely important”.

    Read more articles like this from QS Insights Magazine, Issue 16.