The Turing scheme was supposed to help more disadvantaged UK students study abroad

Johanna Waters
Johanna Waters

As the government publish an evaluation of the first Turing Scheme cohort, Professor Johanna Waters (UCL Geography) questions whether the application process may have penalised students from less well-off backgrounds in The Conversation.

The loss of access for UK university students to the Erasmus+ scheme - a Europe-wide exchange programme that offers students the opportunity and funding to study or work abroad for up to a year - was a  widely mourned  consequence of Brexit.

The UK government announced a replacement, the  Turing scheme , in December 2020. This scheme funds education or training placements outside the UK - in theory, anywhere in the world. Unlike Erasmus+, though, it is not a reciprocal exchange scheme. It does not fund overseas students coming to the UK.

The first students took part in the academic year 2021-22, and the government published  an evaluation  of the first year the scheme in January 2024. It shows that while most student participants reported a positive experience, both the length of placements and the timeline of the application process may have penalised students from less well-off backgrounds.

When the UK government launched the Turing scheme,  widening participation - making study abroad accessible to a more diverse group of students - was a  key objective. The scheme was compared directly to Erasmus+ in this regard: it was argued by the UK government when they  launched the scheme  that Erasmus+ had largely failed to attract more disadvantaged students.

According to the report, around 39% of Turing participants were from disadvantaged backgrounds. Directly comparable figures for Erasmus+ are difficult to attain, although there is a  widely held consensus  that the uptake of Erasmus+ placements by more disadvantaged young people was low.

A report by the  British Academy , published in November 2023, notes that significantly more students participated in the Turing scheme in 2021-2022 than had taken Erasmus+ placements each year. This may suggest some success in meeting the government’s widening participation objectives.

However, this report also observed that those from disadvantaged backgrounds in 2021-2022 received less funding from the Turing scheme average monthly stipend than they would have under Erasmus+.

What’s more, the application timeframe for the Turing scheme may have limited the ability of students from poorer backgrounds to take part.

The government’s report shows that students did not hear back about whether their applications for the Turing scheme and its associated funding had been successful until July. Many overseas placements required students to be in place by August, for the start of their academic year - less than a month later. Even those students starting their placement in September needed confirmation of funding before July.

This affected students from less affluent backgrounds, whose participation was wholly dependent on Turing funding. Some who could not afford upfront costs without the funding, or could not take the risk that funding would not be granted,  dropped out  of the scheme.

Shorter stays

The government’s new evaluation provides a useful profile of participants on the scheme during its first year. It shows that 67% were studying, while 33% were on work placements. Europe and North America were the most common destinations.

The length of the placement varied considerably. University students’ Turing placements lasted 109 days, on average. Students at further education and vocational education colleges, and school students, were also eligible for the scheme, but their placements were much shorter: an average of 26 days for college students and only seven days for school pupils.

Students at further education and vocational institutions are likely to be  less privileged  than those at universities.

Research has suggested  that disadvantaged students are more likely to take shorter trips than longer stays. But shorter placements may not be as  valuable to students  as longer ones.

Length of placement  has been linked  to a better quality and value of experience, meaning that further education and vocational students may be further disadvantaged by the shorter placements on offer to them.

Difficult process

The government’s report on the first year of the scheme noted that 79% of universities had found the application process difficult, compared to the more straightforward Erasmus application.

They also reported that the timescale for submitting the application was too short. The short timeframe prevented institutions from thinking innovatively about international placements.

Most fell back on what one described as "business as usual". This presumably indicates that universities, colleges and schools made use of pre-existing relationships with overseas institutions rather than seeking new ones.

Despite apparent difficulties with the application process, 86% of providers reapplied in the second year of the scheme.

These administrative issues may, over time, be ironed out with adjustments to the application process. However, more fundamentally, some universities expressed concerns about the lack of reciprocity under the Turing scheme. This may provoke questions about the sustainability of relationships with other institutions that are not reciprocal.

It also has potential  geopolitical ramifications. The UK may appear insular, unwelcoming and uninterested in fostering two-way and meaningful international relationships through the scheme.

What’s more, making students wait for funding outcomes is likely to put off less privileged students. This means that the actual impact of the Turing scheme on social mobility in the longer term, remains uncertain.

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