Tuesday 20th April 2021

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the scope of the proposed Turing scheme.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. As one of the first beneficiaries of the Erasmus programme, this issue is close to my heart. I spent a year in Italy, where I not only improved my Italian, but made lifelong friends. I played rugby at Benetton Treviso and expanded my understanding of different cultures, not just European ones. As an undergraduate at Exeter University, the opportunity to study at Ca’ Foscari at the University of Venice was a huge opportunity for a comprehensive schoolgirl from Llanelli.

Over the past 34 years, Erasmus has given an opportunity to more than 250,000 students from the UK, not including those who have benefited from work placements through Erasmus+. Although it is a predominantly European Union scheme, placements are offered in 190 countries worldwide, whereas Turing is an exclusively inward-focused scheme, so where does that leave inward students? The loss of income from incoming students has been estimated by Universities UK to be £243 million per annum. How can we retain the links that have been built up and nurtured over many years when we go it alone?

In the absence of reciprocal funding, we will also be relying on students at European partner universities to come to the UK, despite the lack of financial support for them. What happens to them? Arrangements collapse or organisations introduce fees for our students. The Minister needs to address whether the costs will be covered for our students. The belief that countries will continue to want to come to the UK when their students already benefit from being part of Erasmus with no extra barriers is naive of the Government, and it will ultimately harm the future of students looking to study abroad. Understandably, the Government have talked up the benefits of the Turing scheme, but when it comes down to it, there will be less funding available for students to study abroad. Instead of £125 million a year as part of a seven-year funding cycle through Erasmus+, UK Universities have access to only £100 million in a single-year cycle.

The application process is very different from Erasmus. The added uncertainty around being selected for funding as a result of a more detailed application will prove a barrier for less advantaged students. If someone does not know whether they will get the funding for their year abroad, they are less likely to apply for a course that requires study in another country. It will be uncompetitive, with relatively limited funding available in comparison with Erasmus. Students from less privileged backgrounds will be penalised.

I think about my son and the many students studying foreign languages at A-level now, who are planning and looking ahead to go to university. What does the future hold for them? The Government have failed to address the issue of visas for students wanting to study and work abroad. Who will be responsible for the associated fees for them? Is there a limit on the number of students who will come to the UK through Turing, and will that ultimately affect UK students wanting to take a year abroad?

The timing of the announcement caused consternation for many. The announcement of the new scheme so late last year came too late for applications from those wanting to study on their year abroad in 2021. The funding model that the Government have put in place is not fit for purpose. The short-sightedness of a single-year system makes recruitment to modern foreign language degrees and other subjects that offer a year abroad really difficult. As a linguist and a modern foreign languages graduate, I feel for the students. It is an area where we have issues in recruitment and we have to look at that.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I want to make two points. First, the Government have said that the scheme will be advantageous to disadvantaged students. Does she agree with me that we have not seen any indication of how that is the case? Does she also agree that it is not just language students who benefit from Erasmus? Students like my son, who studied physics in France, had huge benefits. Those collaborations and relationships that are built in other subjects, particularly STEM, are extremely important.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. That is key to one of the points I want to make. I was a pure languages graduate, but is it not wonderful to push girls especially to study STEM subjects? When such a subject is put with a language that allows travel around the world, it is really powerful. We are taking those opportunities away from people with disadvantaged backgrounds because there is less money in the pot, from what we have seen so far. How is it going to work, Minister? For future generations of students across the United Kingdom, I want to know what the Government are doing.

The deadline for applications has been extended twice, which demonstrates the lack of planning and understanding by the architects of the scheme of how it was to work. It seemed like a kneejerk reaction to many of us. The application process is highly complex, not only for educational institutions; imagine what it is like for a student to fill it in. The Turing scheme limits the cohort of people who can apply to study abroad, whereas Erasmus+ also opened up opportunities to those in adult education, in schools and sports courses, and those involved in youth work. The Turing scheme does not cover those areas.

I was a teacher for 20 years and we offered those opportunities and had grants that we were able to access for exchanges. Gone are the days of taking comprehensive school children to France under schemes that I have used for their benefit. Those were children who would not even think about going on holiday there, let alone staying in somebody’s house and experiencing school in another country. Those were unique experiences that our children will now miss out on. My good friend Professor Claire Gorrara, who is the chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said of the Turing scheme:

“The current scheme risks decades-long deeply nurtured partnerships with other European universities for the modern languages community. These partnerships have supported excellent student exchanges that have transformed young people’s lives, improved their languages skills and given them amazing opportunities as global citizens.”

The Turing scheme’s lack of reciprocity also risks staff exchanges, which are the bedrock of these exchanges. I benefited from this when I prepared a project working with a school in Treviso. I had the opportunity to visit beforehand, to ensure that everything was in place for the safety of the children and their educational experience. Without long-term and reciprocal arrangements, and relationships for continuing exchanges in Europe and beyond, the Turing scheme will not be able to deliver on the Government’s global Britain ambitions, which we fully support.

We are now facing a situation where students in England must work only within the parameters of Turing. The devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already said that they will provide additional support. as a Welsh MP, I am obviously interested in Wales., The new international learning exchange scheme in Wales will provide assistance for staff who want to spend time abroad, which is not covered under the Turing scheme.

The exchange of staff not only benefits them, but it leads to a stronger relationship between institutions, with years of relationships from which pupils and students benefit. That provides students with a wider perspective on their learning. The Welsh scheme will benefit from £65 million between 2022 and 2026. That will allow them to try to cover tuition fees when they are imposed on Welsh students—another area where the Turing scheme diverges from Erasmus+. In view of the apparent flaws of the Turing scheme, it seems likely there will be significantly reduced opportunities for learners, seeking to benefit from placements in Europe and elsewhere, and for colleges and universities, hoping to exchange experience and knowledge.

The Government need to rethink their decision to withdraw from Erasmus. Many may think it is futile for me to stand here and ask, given the Government’s ambition to create a global Britain. It really is extraordinary to think that we would withdraw from any relationship at all with a programme with 190 full programme and partner countries.

The UK will continue to participate in Erasmus until 2022 through projects that were approved up to the end of the transition period in 2020, but we need to look to the future and to argue for an Erasmus protocol to be drawn up in parallel with the new EU Horizon R&D programme, which could take effect from 2022-23. It seems likely that the Government and the Minister—I hate to say it—will plough on regardless with the Turing programme, but we need to argue for improvements to it. It is not the finished article, and we do not want it to be the finished article. We want to see improvements and to monitor its implementation.

A wide range of concerned people have been raising issues in this paper since the Government took their decision. The all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). Parliamentary questions have been tabled by the former shadow Minister for further and higher education, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), and others have raised issues about the likely impact of the lack of reciprocity and the income for students in Turing. What evidence is there that the Government have analysed the extent and impact of withdrawing funding from the really important transfer and development activities funded under Erasmus?

I do not want to be all gloom and doom about the Turing scheme. I want the opportunities that were there for me to be there for all people in the United Kingdom, and especially young people. There could be advantages to it, specifically in the flexibility that the scheme offers, which some institutions have welcomed. However, to provide the certainty that universities and students need, the Minister must address the issues raised by many I have spoken to. There is a pressing need for a resolution that allows for certainty.

I will bring up a few issues raised with me. How soon will it be known whether Turing can be extended beyond its first pilot year? A longer timeframe may help the programme to establish more sustainable international partnerships. Will reciprocity ultimately be considered as a feature for the Turing scheme? Will staff exchanges be considered for any future iterations or Turing? How can global Britain leverage its new international trade connections to help cement Turing mobility partnerships? There is a core of colleges with experience of Erasmus projects and partnerships in Europe but not always further afield. Other colleges are also working worldwide. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.

Michelle Donelan Portrait The Minister for Universities (Michelle Donelan)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing the debate on the scope of Turing. As she knows from her membership of the all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus, the Government are committed to international education exchanges. International exchanges and mobilities open up new and exciting possibilities for students, enabling them to develop their cultural awareness and broaden their horizons while also developing transferable skills. That is why we are funding the Turing scheme as an alternative to Erasmus+.

It was always made clear that our participation in the next Erasmus+ programme was the subject of our negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, and participation in Erasmus+ would have meant us paying in around £2 billion more than we would have got out over the course of the programme. That simply did not provide value for money for the UK taxpayer. Turing, however, is a global scheme backed by £110 million in its first year, which will provide funding for about 35,000 UK students in higher education, further education, vocational training and schools to travel abroad for life-changing educational exchanges from this September.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I just want to point out that 35,000 is actually less than the number of those participating under the Erasmus scheme. Does she agree that that is not good enough?

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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I am more than happy to send the hon. Member the link to the statistics. If we look back over the last five years, the average was 32,000, and we are pledging around 35,000, which is a similar number to under Erasmus+. It will be demand-led. Our delivery partners are the British Council and Ecorys, who are able to use their experience from having worked on Erasmus+, which I am sure the hon. Member will welcome. Turing also offers fantastic opportunities for young people across the UK and a key objective of the scheme is to reach areas of the UK that did not engage as much with Erasmus and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as disabled students and students with special educational needs. At its heart, Turing is about inclusivity and opportunities.

We have had some very good responses from the sector—we have worked with them to ensure that the scheme works for all. Members do not need just to take my word for it. Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International said:

“The new Turing scheme is a fantastic development and will provide global opportunities for up to 35,000 UK students to study and work abroad. It is a good investment in the future of students—not only those in universities but in schools and colleges, who will also benefit.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“The Turing scheme opens the world’s door to work and study placements for college students. This is an important part of ‘levelling up’ the life chances for all of our young people—whatever their background.”

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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What if other universities are not going to offer places because there is no reciprocity? Is that something that is going to be addressed?

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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If the hon. Member allows me to make a little progress, I will come on to that point.

Today’s debate is about scope. Turing is truly global and is not limited to the EU, unlike Erasmus+, which was 97% in the EU. Offering a broader range of countries, cultures and languages can only be to the benefit of young people in the UK. We know that there is clear demand. Already, five of the top 10 destinations for UK university students undertaking mobility placements are actually outside the EU.

More than 500 applications have already been started across higher education, further education and schools, showing that there is strong demand from the education sector to take advantage of the opportunities offered, so, far from being naive, as the hon. Member for Gower suggested, universities, further education colleges and schools have been putting in their bids and working with international partners on those relationships, despite the lack of reciprocity. Universities have until tomorrow to apply for the funding.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan
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One of the questions that keeps coming up is how the Government will encourage those from more disadvantaged backgrounds to engage with the Turing scheme. It would be really useful to know what the Government’s plans are to promote it in the sector and to monitor its success within those groups.

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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I will get to that point. There are several ways in which we are going to achieve that, as it is a key objective of the Government’s Turing scheme.

I am thrilled to say that, at the start of the week, we already had more than 80 applications submitted from universities. Schools and colleges have until 7 May to apply for funding. I strongly invite all UK schools and colleges to bid into the scheme to make the most of these fantastic opportunities available for their learners and pupils. Students do not have to apply using the system that we have created—the hon. Member for Gower suggested that was the case. As with Erasmus, students apply directly to their educational institutions.

Global educational experiences broaden students’ horizons, expose them to new cultures and, by doing so, help them to develop crucial new skills. The evidence shows that students who have international experiences tend to do better academically and later in employment. Yet, under Erasmus+, the most privileged students were at least 1.7 times more likely to participate in study abroad. We as a Government believe that is simply not good enough. Mobility and the opportunities it opens up for our young people should not be limited to those from privileged backgrounds. Instead, we have designed a scheme that is for everybody, including the most disadvantaged, because no young person should be excluded from expanding their horizons based on their family’s income.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I realise time is tight. It is all well and good talking about engaging with people from different backgrounds, but how will the Government go and find young people and motivate them to want to participate?

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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I was just getting to that point. The desire to boost participation from disadvantaged backgrounds is one of the fundamental ways that this scheme will be better than Erasmus. We have done that in a number of ways. First, we have made it an objective that providers must meet and prioritise when they put in their bids to be given approval.

Secondly, the scheme provides additional financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing an increased grant for living costs. Unlike Erasmus, we will also be introducing funding for travel-related costs for disadvantaged students, no matter the destination. We will also cover things that they might have to pick up, such as visas, insurance and passport costs—all the additional things that can be barriers to some students.

Thirdly, we have reduced the minimum higher education duration of outward mobilities compared with Erasmus+ from one term to four weeks, which we have identified as a barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who have other responsibilities, such as caring responsibilities. Additionally, we are focusing extra support and communications in areas of the UK that have traditionally not engaged as much with mobility schemes. That is the work of the Department, the Government and the British Council. There is also funding available to help meet the additional costs for students with disabilities, such as preparatory visits to help ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to suit the individual student’s needs.

On how the scheme will actually work, it is, like Erasmus+, demand-led, and providers will have the flexibility to form partnerships that will offer the most benefit to their students. Institutions in all four nations can bid competitively, and those that are successful will receive funding towards the cost of administering the scheme for their students. All participating students will receive grants, dependent on the destination country, to contribute towards their living costs. The grants are marginally above those given to Erasmus+ students. With Erasmus+, higher education students received a monthly grant equivalent to £320 to £365, with an additional contribution of £105 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Under the Turing scheme, we will provide a grant of between £335 and £380 per month, plus a disadvantaged supplement of £110 per month. We will also cover the added extras, as I outlined a moment ago.

Although we wanted to devise a flexible scheme, we envisage that the majority of higher education mobilities will be done as exchanges, so there will not be the loss of inward mobility that the hon. Member for Gower identified. To be clear, students will not be faced with additional tuition fee charges. Instead, institutions will waive their fees, which is certainly what is happening on the ground. The institutions telling me that they have put their bids in have managed to achieve that, so we know it is working in practice. This is not a new model, as higher education institutions both in the UK and overseas routinely arrange to waive their tuition fees as part of their exchange partnerships outside Erasmus. All we are doing is scaling up an existing successful model and funding it with additional taxpayer money, to both widen access to opportunities offered to students across the UK and to extend the scope.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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Just one question, then: what are the Government going to do? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are supplementing the scheme. What will the Minister be doing in the UK to make it equivalent to what students in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be having?

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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I believe that in Northern Ireland it is not being supplemented. There will be access, in part, to the rest of Erasmus, but that has not been ironed out yet. We obviously await what will happen in Scotland, as that is a manifesto commitment and there is an ongoing election. What is happening in Wales is not starting till 2022 and is only £16.5 million per year.

Let me address some of the points that the hon. Member outlined about the differences between Turing and Erasmus. Yes, Turing is an outward mobility scheme for UK participants, but as we will fund UK participants to go abroad, it seems reasonable that we would expect other countries to do the same. Let us not forget that we are the second most attractive destination for international students, and more of the world’s top universities are in the UK than in all of the EU combined. A number of countries have schemes that they can use to fund inward mobility, and some Erasmus funding can be used to send students to the UK, as we are a recognised partner country.

I have spoken directly to several international organisations, including the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, Heidelberg in Germany and the Sorbonne in France, as well as many other institutions across the Commonwealth, such as the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, York University in Canada and the University of Sydney in Australia. They are some of the world’s best higher education institutions and are eager to learn more about Turing, to engage with it and potentially to participate.

We will harness our appeal as a destination to deliver an international education exchange programme that has genuine global reach. That will strengthen the UK’s research and education sector and provide better experiences for students in the UK. International opportunities for young people outside formal education settings and youth activity are being considered as part of a youth review led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because the Turing scheme is an international educational mobility scheme. That youth review was commissioned by the Treasury in the 2020 spending review.

It is important to note that Erasmus+ Sport is a very small part of the programme, representing only 1.8% of the overall budget in the 2014 to 2020 programme. We are also already investing significant sums of money in sport programmes that align with Erasmus+ Sport themes and objectives. For example, through Sport England, we are investing more than £1.2 billion between 2016 and 2021 in grassroots sport and physical activity programmes.

To address the issue raised about staff mobility, Turing will not fund staff as outlined, apart from those staff who are necessary to chaperone student placements. We have done that because we have decided to prioritise taxpayers’ money to ensure that as many students, learners and pupils as possible have access to life-changing mobility to support them in developing the skills that they need to thrive, focusing particularly on enabling those students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That includes young people who have never even left their county let alone their country. The Government think that it is vital that they, too, can experience these life-changing opportunities.

The Turing scheme will ensure continuity of international exchanges while strengthening the UK’s educational sector and building on the UK’s considerable international appeal as a study destination. The spending review last year was only a one-year spending review, as I am sure hon. Members appreciate, given the pandemic. They will know, however, that the Government are 100% committed to international mobility, so be under no illusion: this is a long-term plan for the Government. That is exactly why we have created a bespoke UK-wide scheme that will support and encourage participation of students from all backgrounds to go across the globe, provide greater value for money to the UK taxpayer, and boost student skills and prospects.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.