The Turing Scheme was introduced in 2021 in the wake of Brexit. Now on its third funding round, student mobility staff say the program is failing to live up to the EU’s Erasmus+ exchange program as they navigate challenges with payouts, funding timelines and a lack of transparency.
“The way that funding is allocated doesn’t really take into context the way mobility works at the ground level,” said Rohan McCarthy-Gill, head of global mobility at the University of Sussex and chair of the British Universities Transnational Exchange group.
Under Erasmus+, universities received a pot of funding upfront to allocate as they saw fit over several years. Now, institutions must bid for funding for the upcoming academic year and Turing decides which programs will receive money.
“Some institutions have received more this year than last… whereas some institutions have received less,” said James Illingworth, chair of the year abroad special interest group at the University Council for Modern Languages. “The situation is therefore quite varied from institution to institution.”
Turing uses external assessors to evaluate funding bids against the scheme’s objectives. The assessment criteria includes questions around how projects will encourage new global relationships, how they will support disadvantaged learners and how they deliver value for money.
But institutions say it is unclear how funding is allocated, meaning they don’t know what to expect or how to improve their applications in future.
“We would prefer to have more agency in deciding how that money gets spent”
“Generally speaking, there seems to be a tendency to privilege placements that are unpaid (i.e. not paid work placements) and/or placements for students with lower household incomes (in keeping with Turing’s widening participation ethos),” Illingworth wrote in an email to The PIE News.
“There’s no direct nexus between what we’ve asked for and what we get,” said McCarthy-Gill, adding that Turing effectively dictates which programs students can participate in.
“We would prefer to have more agency in deciding how that money gets spent,” he said.
This year, 150 higher education institutions applied for Turing funding, compared to 211 further education and VET institutions, and 159 schools. Of these, 61% received funding, although institutions generally report receiving less than they bid for.
Universities were awarded £62 million in Turing funding, making up the the bulk of the £106 million awarded in total. A further £36 million went to the FE/VET sector and £7 million to schools.
But this was a smaller share of the funding than in 2022/23 when higher education institutions received £67 million of the £98 million available. The number of applications from all sectors went up in 2023/24.
Charley Robinson, head of global mobility policy at Universities UK International, said the scheme has been “so successful” that it is “heavily oversubscribed by universities”.
“We have seen increased engagement across the whole of the education sector, and as such, we are keen to see the funding allocation increased in future so that more students can benefit from a Turing placement,” Robinson added.
Unless institutions dig into their own coffers to fund mobility, students are being warned to prepare to pay for their own exchanges. What’s more, many students are only finding out if they will receive funding a few weeks before they are due to head abroad.
“Institutions were once again only told how much funding they would receive last month, which means most students, in modern languages at least, have been told to plan their year abroad as if they have no funding, as this could not be guaranteed until very late in the process,” said Illingworth.
Robinson said, “We would like to see the scheme move away from a 12-month model to a two, or three-year model in the future, working around students’ planning and decision timelines.
“This would give students security early on knowing the funding is there to support them, and help universities innovate in the variety of opportunities available to students.”
The government has only confirmed that the scheme will run until 2024/25, meaning that school students considering going to university in the next few years may not have access to exchange funding when they arrive.
Last year, payment delays also meant some universities were forced to underwrite the funding for students until it came through.
“For a university without a cashflow problem, you can do that at least because you’ve got a contractual agreement that the money needs to be paid, but for universities that are smaller… that’s not a good state of affairs,” said McCarthy-Gill, describing the operationalisation of the Turing Scheme as “woeful”.
When bidding for funding, institutions are asked to provide specific details around start dates, end dates and participant numbers. These can often only be finalised late into the process, particularly for short-term mobility programs like summer schools.
“We’re being asked for information sometimes that we don’t yet have,” said Rohan. If things do change, it can be difficult to update the details.
“The change process is quite time consuming and cumbersome, there are no certainties around it. Often you’re having to kind of gamble that changes will be accepted and hope for the best.”
Where universities believe Turing has been somewhat successful is in its focus on widening participation. This year, nearly two-thirds of students due to receive funding are classified as “disadvantaged”, up from 51% last year.
“The Turing Scheme has moved from being a primarily European program to a newly global one, and has dramatically increased participation for students from less advantaged backgrounds,” said Robinson.
Robert Halfon, minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, described the scheme as “driving social mobility”.
But, as McCarthy-Gill pointed out, without enough funding to go round, universities end up having to decide who is more disadvantaged.
Three years since the launch of Turing, institutions and membership bodies continue to advocate for changes to the system, but doing so is yielding few results.
“In three years, I don’t think they’ve taken any major request from the sector on board,” said McCarthy-Gill.
“We’ve just got to explain to the students that it’s an imperfect funding scheme and that we’re limited in our ability to change elements of it.”
A department for education spokesperson said, “This year, over 40,000 pupils, learners, and students across the UK will get the chance to study and work in over 160 destinations across the globe, with 60% of these opportunities for participants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Young people taking part will benefit from inspirational placements that will build the confidence they need for their future, whilst bolstering the government’s ambition for a Global Britain.”