Post-Brexit educational mobilities – What’s next?

Following its departure from the European Union in 2020, the United Kingdom left the Erasmus+ programme, which funded international mobility for higher education students, replacing it with the Turing Scheme.

The scheme is underpinned by four key objectives that address what the government sees as particular socio-economic and geo-political challenges: to promote ‘Global Britain’, through ‘forging new relationships across the world’; to ‘support social mobility and widen participation across the UK’; to develop ‘key skills’, bridge ‘the gap between education and work’; and to ensure ‘value for UK taxpayers’ in international student mobility.

To date, there has been virtually no academic analysis of the implications of this change, especially what it means for students themselves – students keen to engage in educational mobility and to experience some time, as part of their degree, ‘abroad’.

To start to address this gap, over recent months we have conducted research to tease out some of the implications.

What messages are UK institutions giving?

We draw on an analysis of the websites of UK higher education institutions to examine what messages are being conveyed about the Turing Scheme – not only because of the limited data about the scheme in the public domain, but also because webpages constitute a key means of communication between universities and their student communities (as well as with the public more generally).

In total, we analysed the relevant pages of 100 higher education institutions. The institutions were chosen randomly, out of a list of all 165 UK higher education institutions produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

For each institution, we analysed the web pages devoted to ‘international opportunities’/study abroad for outgoing students (that is, individuals who were already students at the institution). We completed a grid for each institution, recording what was said, if anything, about the following topics:

• How international opportunities are presented to students;

• The geographical spread of opportunities;

• The type of opportunities available;

• The Turing Scheme, specifically; and

• The availability of opportunities for students who are traditionally under-represented in higher education and-or within international student mobility.

Our analysis focussed primarily on text rather than layout or visual representation. We also searched each institution’s website for any mention of the Turing Scheme that was outside of the international opportunities pages, noting, for example, where higher education institutions had provided in a news item information about the amount of funding they had been awarded under the scheme. (This was evident in only 11 of the 100 cases.)

Information about the Turing Scheme, in the public domain, is currently limited. Nevertheless, our website analysis provides an early indication of how higher education institutions are responding to this new initiative and communicating it to students, and how their activities map on to the scheme’s key objectives.

Dominance of a ‘Global Britain’ discourse

First, with respect to the objective of promoting ‘Global Britain’, our research indicates that the language used by higher education institutions strongly reflects the ‘Global Britain’ discourse.

However, it also appears that opportunities for mobility remain significantly geographically circumscribed – with a strong focus on the United States and other Anglophone nations of the Global North as well as, interestingly, ‘older’ relationships within mainland Europe.

‘Global’ is also understood in largely individualistic terms, with an emphasis on the benefits to individuals rather than to wider communities, nations or ‘global society’.

Widening participation?

Secondly, despite the clear governmental emphasis on increasing the participation of disadvantaged groups, this objective was reflected much less obviously in the higher education institutions websites.

While practice within institutions may be different, the targeting of disadvantaged groups was not presented as a key aspect of the scheme on websites, while the enhanced Turing grants available to disadvantaged groups were mentioned only rarely.

This may constitute a lost opportunity to market the scheme to groups of students not traditionally engaged in international mobility.

The rise of ‘third party’ providers

Thirdly, and finally, we also contend that the Turing Scheme appears to be extending ‘migration infrastructures’ by increasing the number of ‘third parties’ involved in short-term mobility programmes (for example, charities and other largely non-profit organisations providing volunteering and study abroad opportunities, such as Pagoda Projects, Think Pacific and Edge of Africa). The impact of these is yet to be ascertained.

While they may increase opportunities for students who are able to spend only a short time abroad (such as those with caring or work commitments), the lack of academic content and oversight from host higher education institutions suggests that these experiences may be of a lesser quality.

Moreover, the shorter duration of many trips may prove insufficient to develop the skills central to the Turing Scheme’s objectives – let alone a broader understanding of other cultures.

All of these questions remain pertinent to understanding the socio-economic and (geo)political challenges posed by the Turing Scheme. Significantly more scholarship is needed to understand its immediate and longer-term impacts.

Rachel Brooks is professor of sociology and associate dean, research and innovation, in the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom. Johanna Waters is professor of geography at University College London, UK. This article is based on an academic article that will be published shortly in the journal Higher Education.