Dismay as British Council loses Turing mobility scheme

The government’s decision to take the running of the United Kingdom’s student mobility Turing scheme – the UK’s alternative to Erasmus+ – to the private outsourcing company Capita has dismayed education experts in both Britain and overseas. They say the impact may prove damaging to the reputation and credibility of the UK’s alternative to Erasmus+, in addition to further denting the finances of the British Council.

The decision to strip the British Council of its role in running the UK’s alternative outward mobility scheme comes less than a year after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulled the UK out of the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme in a last-minute free-trade Brexit deal with the European Commission at the end of 2020.

The new Turing scheme, which has guaranteed government funding for the next three years, including £110 million (US$146 million) for the next academic year, was initially handed over to the British Council and Ecorys UK to run, after a U-turn by premier Johnson who had earlier indicated his desire to keep the UK inside the mobility aspect of the Erasmus+ programme.

The British Council and Ecorys had previously administered the UK involvement with the EU programme, and universities were told there should not be too much disruption.

And Turing had a relatively successful lift-off, beating its original target of funding 35,000 mobility students and trainees in 2021-22 by attracting 41,024 participants, of which 48% are identified as coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, in its first year.

The UK government made it clear from the start that the focus should be on widening the number of study abroad participants via short-term mobility over maintaining the emphasis on one semester or a year abroad under the EU scheme.

Despite the doubters in academic circles, the British replacement to Erasmus appeared to be more than living up to the best expectations.

Real test

The Turing programme may now face a real test after news leaked out that the British Council is being stripped of its responsibility for running the UK outward mobility programme, to be replaced by the outsourcing firm Capita, which is taking over in April 2022.

Public confirmation of the change came in an exclusive story in The Guardian newspaper on 8 December.

However, it is now clear that many in the UK higher education sector knew what was coming at least a week before, when the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) circulated a job description on their internal messaging board for a “head” of Turing.

The fixed-term post for 12 months, with a salary of between £48,479 and £57,186 (with potential to extend), has a start date in January 2022 and was described as “an exciting new role that will provide the overall leadership and project management of the ACU’s contribution to the successful delivery of the UK Government’s flagship outward mobility Turing [scheme] – led by Capita and supported by the ACU and other partners”.

The closing date for applications or secondment was given as 10 December 2021, so the impression may be given of a rush job to put the pieces in place for the 1 April 2022 handover.

Capita appears to have been standing by for some weeks with the announcement, which they eventually published on their website on 9 December – the day after The Guardian broke the news.

Costi Karayannis, managing director and client partner for education and learning at Capita, said they were delighted to have won the contract and said: “We look forward to working with the Department for Education to enable students from all backgrounds to access global work and education opportunities.”

The 23-month contract is worth £6.27 million (US$8.3 million) and will see Capita plc working with the UK government and devolved administrations around the United Kingdom, with the company “responsible for promoting the scheme to organisations and students, managing and delivering bids, assessing applications and more”.

Association of Commonwealth Universities

Capita has appointed the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) as principal partner to lead on the assessment of applications and to support with monitoring and evaluation.

“The ACU has decades of experience in managing and delivering international mobility schemes,” said its statement.

Dr Joanna Newman, secretary general of the ACU, said: “We are delighted to have been named as Capita’s principal partner on this next phase of the Turing scheme.

“Our innovative partnership draws on the ACU’s global networks and partnerships and will build on our extensive expertise and knowledge in delivering renowned international mobility and scholarship schemes, including managing the UK Government’s Chevening, Commonwealth and Marshall scholarship schemes, and the multilateral Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarships.

“Widening access to mobility, particularly through short-term options, has long been a strategic mission of the ACU, and the Turing scheme’s focus on widening participation and social impact resonates strongly with our values.”

Impact on British Council

Current British Council staff are treading carefully as the UK government’s Department for Education (DfE) is a key client, but one insider described it as “sad news indeed” and told University World News: “We’ve been waiting for DfE to make an announcement, which they weren’t keen to do.”

The insider admitted that the British Council was “miles off” the successful bid from Capita, which is understood to have had a ceiling of £7 million.

The loss of administering the Turing scheme is far less of a hit in financial terms to the British Council than exiting the Erasmus+ programme, which covered a range of key actions on top of student mobility, including strategic partnerships, knowledge alliances, capacity-building and joint masters degrees, as University World News outlined in a story on 7 January 2021.

But staff at the British Council’s offices in Cardiff will be worried as they are currently running down the UK’s involvement with Erasmus+, which had money unspent from the last round because student mobility was severely disrupted in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as administering the Turing replacement scheme.

Losing the Turing programme comes after other major blows to the British Council recently, including the loss of funding from their English and exams business throughout the pandemic, which has led to a major drop in income.

An ‘outsourcing frenzy’

Former British Council staff are more willing to speak openly about the UK government decision to outsource the Turing scheme to the for-profit private sector.

Almut Caspary, who, until her recent move to the Max Delbrück Center in Berlin, Germany, was higher education and science lead, EU region, at the British Council, posted her immediate reaction on LinkedIn.

She wrote: “I‘m so sorry for my former colleagues at the British Council who delivered the first year so successfully, and who worked tirelessly to ensure a positive reception of the new Turing scheme around the world. Not a mean feat, certainly not in the EU, where university partners were mourning the UK’s unexpected exit from Erasmus.”

Caspary told University World News: “It’s sad to see that culture, education and schools are increasingly swept up in the outsourcing frenzy. Is there no end to marketisation? When do we start valuing insights and the time it takes to build knowledge?”

She said the move sent out a clear message to Europe that the UK’s Turing scheme is “firmly oriented towards the rest of the world, not the EU, as the ACU as sub-contractor doesn’t have a network in Europe, apart from Malta and Cyprus as Commonwealth countries”.

She said that was totally fine as a political statement but will make success of the scheme a whole lot more difficult as most higher education mobility partnerships, which would allow for the scheme to become reciprocal, are with EU countries and most short-term mobilities are to countries in geographical proximity.

Caspary also told University World News that European funding organisations for international exchanges of students and researchers, such as DAAD in Germany, had approached the British Council before she left about becoming a partner on the Turing programme.

“That was possible because we were their counterpart for UK higher education. We’ve had a long-established relationship. Our European partners probably haven’t even heard of Capita and wouldn’t know who to approach.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the academic staff union, the University and College Union, was more scathing of the move, saying: “Outsourcing the scheme to Capita, who have a shocking record of failure on a range of other government contracts, is a terrible decision from the Department for Education, which will further diminish the quality of student exchange programmes.

“The British Council has important expertise in the running of student exchanges, and cutting them out of the process in favour of a profit-making private company is shameful. The Turing scheme is still finding its feet, and the priority must be delivering quality for students, not a race to the bottom.”

Concerns over disruption

Dr Vicky Lewis, who runs her own consultancy on international higher education strategy development, and has published research on the ‘mismatch’ between UK higher education global rhetoric and reality earlier this year, as reported by University World News, said feedback from her contacts in the UK higher education student mobility sector was worrying.

“They have serious concerns about outsourcing to a company that is very much an outsider with no experience of similar programmes, and they are concerned about disruption to current projects, since Capita will take over management halfway through, and they want reassurance that the transfer of processes will go smoothly.

“They also made observations about dissemination of information and noted that much of the sector knew about the change of management before any official announcement was made. They felt this didn’t bode well for transparency of communication in the future, although they recognised that this may be more of a reflection on the Department for Education than on Capita.”

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of the Education Insight consultancy in the UK, told University World News that the most significant impact of replacing the Erasmus+ programme with the UK’s own Turing scheme was the shift in emphasis from long-term mobility to short-term mobility.

“Short-term mobility currently accounts for 21% in the UK compared with 64% of the study abroad students going for at least a semester. The remaining 15% is medium-term mobility ranging from five to 13 weeks.

“Turing funds both, but in future I suspect it will mainly be used for short-term mobility, with the priority being getting up the number of students taking part. This will make the UK more like the United States and Australia, where short-term study abroad accounts for 65% of the mobility type in the US and 59% in Australia,” she said.

Ilieva also pointed out that the Erasmus scheme which Turing replaced at the start of the 2021-22 academic year represented 49.2% of student mobility from the UK, with provider-led mobility accounting for 40.7%, sandwich placements for 5.6%, and other mobility programmes representing 4.5%.

Ilieva said while cost may have been the motive for giving the contract to run the Turing programme to Capita, the impact of the change in brand is unknown.

“A key consideration is the sustainability of the programme, knowledge of the main stakeholders and the longevity of the relationships. The British Council is a valued and trusted organisation, and it is sad to see their experience in running educational exchanges and facilitating study abroad not being utilised,” she said.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.