Unspent Erasmus funds to help UK mobility scheme to fly

Universities in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe are not waiting for invitations to bid for grants from the UK government’s new Turing Scheme before securing their own bilateral agreements to allow students and staff on exchanges to continue, following the British government’s decision to pull the UK out of the EU-funded Erasmus+ programme.

One Spanish university has already clinched institutional agreements with 40 UK universities so that two-way exchanges can be offered in the 2021-22 academic year, with a pledge to use its own funds to guarantee outbound mobility to the UK if unspent Erasmus+ grants are insufficient to cover the cost.

The University of Alicante in Spain told University World News that it had reached agreement with all but one of its previous Erasmus+ exchange partners in the UK and that funding was in place for 183 placements in the UK this coming academic year, with the expectation of maintaining that number with the help of patronage, sponsorship and their mobility funds in 2022-23.

Virginia Aceituno, who is responsible for Alicante’s international, social and cultural communications, told University World News they understood British universities would apply for Turing funding or use their own outstanding Erasmus+ grant money to pay for UK students coming to Spain on exchanges. Erasmus+ grants can be for two years and some were extended to 2023 because of the COVID-19 restrictions on travel abroad last year.

The British government unveiled the first details of its new Turing Scheme just days after finally clinching a free-trade deal with the European Commission, as part of the Brexit process, over the Christmas holiday period.

It will be backed by £110 million (US$152.5 million) in its first year to provide funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements overseas, starting in September 2021. Bids for grants are due to open this month.

Initial funding for one year

The £110 million so far pledged just covers outbound study and trainee placements from the UK and is only for the 2021-22 academic year, explained Anne-May Janssen, head of European engagement at Universities UK International (UUKi).

She said the initial budget for the Turing Scheme was part of the UK government’s one-year spending review, published on 25 November 2020, and future funding is likely to feature in the next spending review.

Vivienne Stern, UUKi’s director, was asked about the life-span of the Turing programme during a webinar hosted by the European Association for International Education (EAIE) on 26 February 2021.

She said while it was technically correct that the Turing Scheme had only one year of funding at this stage, this was because every government department had a one-year budget in the last spending review. She also said that UK universities could take advantage of unspent Erasmus+ funds from the last round of the programme as well, adding: “This could be a bit of cushion moving from one regime to another.”

‘Use it, or lose it’

Politically, she claimed the Turing Scheme had support from the prime minister down, but she warned institutions: “We must use it or lose it. We must make this thing fly even though it will not be perfect in the first year. We need to get the politicians to understand that this is a great use of our money because frankly governments in the UK and right across Europe will be feeling the financial pain from the COVID crisis and we need to maintain their enthusiasm for student mobility.”

Although Stern predicted a “bumpy” start, she told the webinar: “We need to try to make the best of this and ensure it is a long-term programme,” adding that while Universities UK would have preferred to remain in the Erasmus+ programme, it did help “inform” the government’s planning process for a possible British alternative towards the end of last year.

Stern said the consultation was “all under the radar”, as they and other mobility experts from across the country didn’t want to “jinx” the prospects of the UK continuing to participate in Erasmus+.

Lack of reciprocity

However, UK-based international higher education expert and researcher Dr Neil Kemp told University World News that a major weakness of the UK’s substitute Turing Scheme is the lack of reciprocity and failure to offer any funding for incoming exchange students from other countries.

“The UK has been incredibly successful in attracting EU students and some of those coming via the Erasmus route return to study on postgraduate courses and contribute to joint research projects with European partner institutions.

“The Turing alternative also fails to include staff exchanges and doesn’t seem to understand the benefits that come from European students – and staff – coming to the UK.”

But despite his disappointment, he agreed with Vivienne Stern that universities must take advantage of the UK substitute to Erasmus+ for outbound mobility.

“UK universities need to get their act together and use up all the Turing money available. Higher education doesn’t get much additional funding these days; so yes, I agree ‘use it, or lose it’!”

Participants at the EAIE webinar appeared to agree. Most taking part represented universities in Western and Northern Europe, and a poll during their webinar showed that 64% said they were “very likely” or “likely” to continue sending students to the UK on exchanges, despite the disruption caused by Britain pulling out of Erasmus+ and the lack of funding support for those coming to the UK.

This view was shared by Rowena Kidger, global opportunities manager at Cardiff Metropolitan University, one of the 40 UK universities that reached agreement with the University of Alicante to continue student and staff exchanges.

Widening participation pledge welcomed

She told University World News that they shared many of the publicly-stated goals of the new Turing programme, including trying to widen participation in study and trainee placement abroad.

“Many of our students are from the Welsh valleys and some students consider it a challenge to cross the border to England – let alone travel abroad! So, we like the idea of shortening the minimum period for exchanges to four weeks from the two months for work or three months for study abroad under Erasmus+.

“Many of our students have work or family commitments and they just can’t go off to another country for any longer.”

She said Cardiff Met University didn’t teach full foreign language degree programmes and most of their students going abroad went on work placements, internships or to summer schools. Most incoming students from European university partners, like Alicante, came to study with many attracted to degree courses in travel and tourism.

Kidger confirmed that Cardiff Met would be applying for Turing funding to support outbound students to universities like Alicante and that they intended to use unspent Erasmus+ funding from the last round of the EU programme to support staff exchanges abroad which are outside the remit of the UK’s Turing programme.

‘90% of mobility secured’

Virginia Aceituno told University World News that Rosa María Martínez, the University of Alicante vice president for international relations and development cooperation, had recently told Alicante staff that successful negotiations with UK institutions had guaranteed that 90% of existing mobility programmes with the UK would be maintained after Brexit in 2021-22, with fee-waivers for both incoming and outbound students.

Martínez said the goal was to “consolidate existing collaborations in the UK and promote more collaborations with strategic partners in this country; and enter into framework and specific mobility agreements with all partners to ensure the exchange of students and academic staff”.

Aceituno said: “The UK is an important and popular destination country for us because of the need to learn the English language and Rosa María Martínez thanked everyone involved in securing the bilateral exchange agreements with the UK universities and announced that the University of Alicante had put aside a budget of €260,000 [US$310,000] to ensure that the necessary funds were available to support up to 183 places for Alicante students to go to the UK in the next academic year.”

Longer term, the University of Alicante has already secured agreements with nearly half their UK partners for 2022-23 and was confident of attracting patronage and sponsorship as well as resources from within the university to maintain the existing number of exchange placements with British universities.

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