The more we learn about the Turing programme, the more questions are raised about the level of its ambition and its suitability as a replacement for Erasmus Plus.
Erasmus Plus is internationally recognised and a tried and tested system of international educational collaboration. UK institutions have played an active role in it for over 30 years – decades in which the programme’s scope has expanded to include vocational education, training, youth work and sport.
The UK government’s Brexit deal included a last minute decision to ditch Erasmus Plus, in spite of joint opposition from the Welsh and Scottish Governments. The devolved nations had consistently spelt out the strategic value of Erasmus Plus to their education, training and youth sectors – policy areas which fall under devolved competencies.
Perhaps ironically, this decision came at the moment when the EU was confirming an increase in the Erasmus Plus budget, taking the total to €26 billion for the period 2021-27. Participation will increase from 10 million to 14 million young people, students and staff. In addition, the volunteering-focused ‘sister strand’ of Erasmus Plus, the European Solidarity Corps, received a boost of €1bn, enabling c.350,000 youth volunteers to take part in humanitarian and social projects.
These changes also boost youth work opportunities, including creating international experiences for young people who are not in education. Turing contains no youth work provision, in spite of claims that it will better serve disadvantaged young people. These are sounding increasingly hollow to anyone familiar with the targeted youth work funding available in Erasmus Plus but nowhere to be seen in Turing.
Parliament must now have a full debate to scrutinise the decision to leave Erasmus Plus, and the suitability of Turing as a replacement. How do the programmes compare in scope, breadth of engagement, benefit to different sectors? What impact will it have on different sectors? How will young people be affected?
There are far too many weaknesses when Turing is set against Erasmus Plus to make any government feel comfortable.
Turing may be lauded as a sign of ‘Global Britain’, but Erasmus Plus already included over fifty countries – and more besides. It already has a truly international reputation, powered by its joint Masters programmes and international credit transfer scheme.
Furthermore, Turing only has scope for sending people out from the UK. We will be robbed of Erasmus plus’s rich inflow of staff, trainers, students and young people. Over the last 35 years, this flow has brought new ideas to our classrooms, helped generate an atmosphere of ‘internationalisation at home’ on our campuses and in our communities, opened minds and encouraged thinking around wider perspectives. It has developed into networks with ‘soft power’ and diplomatic value.
If you want to build a truly ‘global Britain’, why not use this as your starting point? Why abandon rich bilateralism for a one-way street?
And what about recognition and quality control? One of the founding ideas behind Erasmus is that periods of study aboard are recognised as parts of degree qualifications. This means that collaborating institutions can award joint degrees – a move which has been both popular and had a positive impact on employability in the international labour market. The Erasmus Charter (ECHE) ensures the quality and value of the student experiences. No such process exists as yet for Turing. Neither do we have assurances about fee waivers or student financing.
Erasmus Plus includes grants for planning and preparation to build quality programmes and relationships that can support rich experiences for young people. High quality international experiences are based on shared understanding and deep collaboration, and on partnerships that develop over many years. They don’t come out of nowhere, and Turing risks abandoning years of valuable groundwork.
And there’s more.
The 2021-27 Erasmus Plus programme includes new priorities, as well as new funding. There will be €100m for digital education to support projects in schools, vocational education and training, and in higher education. These projects will enhance the quality of online and distance learning, including inclusive digital learning opportunities. No one who has been involved in education over the last twelve months could deny the importance of this work.
There will also be €100m for ‘partnerships for creativity’, focusing on the cultural and creative sectors, which have been so badly hit by the pandemic. These projects include developing creative skills, promoting the potential of young people and boosting the quality, innovation and recognition of youth work.
These priorities demonstrate the adaptability of Erasmus Plus, and its ongoing evolution and innovation. In our current circumstances, it is especially heartbreaking that our young people will be robbed of these opportunities.
Finally, it makes no policy or economic sense for the UK be in Horizon but not in Erasmus Plus. These programmes now constitute the largest international venture combining teaching, study, research development and innovation. The UK‘s decision comes just as the EU is planning a new synergy between Horizon and Erasmus Plus to prioritise the global challenge of climate change. The new ‘Greening dimension’ will promote interdisciplinary environment-related and sustainability studies. Surely, if this were coupled with the research innovation powered by Horizon, it would serve as a strong indicator that ‘global Britain’ really was determination to play a driving role at COP26 in Glasgow later this year?
There is deep regret about the UK government’s decision to leave Erasmus Plus across Europe, and a real willingness to reconnect. Yet indications are that Turing will downplay cooperation with European to target English-speaking countries. We risk losing longstanding European partnerships which have enriched the whole continent, including the UK. How can a truly ‘global Britain’ turn its back on Europe?
In fairness, the UK government responded to criticisms of the original plans for Turing, which focused only on universities. However, from what we can see, there are still glaring shortcomings in the plans for Turing when set against the breadth and depth of Erasmus Plus.
We now need Parliament to step up and ask challenging questions, based on the reality of Erasmus Plus and not on half-baked sound bites. Our young people deserve no less.