Neil Hudson: We have every reason to feel excited about the Government’s ambitious Turing scheme

12 Mar

Dr Neil Hudson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border. Neil is a veterinary surgeon and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

As an MP who has worked as a university senior lecturer, I don’t mind admitting that I was a disappointed when I first heard that the UK would not be taking part in Erasmus+. Although the scheme wasn’t perfect, it still was an amazing opportunity for our students. I’d seen first-hand how it could create opportunities which broadened their horizons – and I worried about our ability to create a domestic alternative that would truly match its ambition.

The importance of students being able to exchange experiences in different institutions is a win-win for them and academics. I know from personal experience that when your students are placed in international institutions and vice versa this is a great way of fostering teaching and research collaborations in both places. In the midst of a global pandemic, it was too easy to see that this could have been deprioritised.

The reality is that international partnerships have never been more important to universities. International students – essential not just for the diversity of outlook they bring to campus, but for the financial contribution they make – have proved unexpectedly loyal during Covid-19, averting vice-chancellors’ worst-case scenarios.

But it cannot be taken for granted that this will continue, especially as Asian universities rise up the world rankings and the US seeks to once again become a more welcoming studying destination. Academic conferences, a staple of building international networks, have looked very different over the last year, with fewer opportunities to forge the personal connections on which partnerships are made.

For universities, this can be particularly challenging. An international outlook is part of their core ethos. From Covid-19 to climate change, it is increasingly clear that the problems facing our world require international solutions. And as a former university academic and admissions dean, I know first-hand that opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to travel abroad are seen as highly important by students when deciding where to study, or in inspiring them to reach their full potential.

It’s for this reason that I’m delighted that the Government has moved so quickly to set up the Turing scheme. It is a genuinely ambitious offer that has been described by Universities UK – no lovers of Brexit – as “a fantastic development”. And in some areas, I am relieved to say it is even better than Erasmus+ was.

Some of the criticisms that have been thrown at the scheme can only be described as inaccurate, misrepresentations of the facts by those not wanting to give something new and ambitious a chance. The monthly cost of living allowance for both schemes is comparable: 370-420 Euro for a typical student under Erasmus+ compared to 390 – 443 Euro (£335-380) for Turing, with similar uplifts for disadvantaged students.

Importantly, under Erasmus+, only those who went to non-EU countries – three per cent of UK participants – received support for travel, whereas in Turing, all disadvantaged students will receive travel support – not just for flights, but for visas, passports and travel insurance – wherever they are going in the world. The suggestion that Turing participants will have to pay tuition fees is also incorrect: mutual fee waivers will be negotiated by each university partnership, as is absolutely standard for HE exchange schemes around the world. This argument also underlies the flawed thinking that the UK should pay for both inward and outward mobilities: an exchange is a partnership, to which both sides contribute, just as all country participants in Erasmus+ paid towards its costs.

There are some ways in which the schemes are different. The most disappointing for me personally is that Turing only includes students, not academics or teachers. I know colleagues in HE who will feel this painfully. But equally, I recognise that academics have many other opportunities to travel abroad and, as a Conservative MP committed to the levelling-up agenda, I recognise that we should focus taxpayers’ money on creating opportunities for those who otherwise would not have them, not supporting those who could access support another way.

And set against this are the tremendous advantages of Turing. Most obviously, there is the ability to travel anywhere in the world, not just Europe. European countries will always be our friends and partners, but this scheme will open up new opportunities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia to name but a few. Providing the opportunity to study at the Ivy League, Singapore, Japan, or to forge partnerships, friendships and collaborations with our Commonwealth allies, is something our students will grasp with both hands.

Less talked about, but also important, is the greater flexibility that Turing offers in terms of the length and format of exchanges. The typical average six-month duration of Erasmus+ exchanges meant that the scheme was dominated by certain subject areas such as languages.

To take my own subject, veterinary medicine, it is difficult in a professional degree to spend a whole year abroad – but far more feasible to go for an eight-week study or clinical work placement. Although year-long exchanges will still be available, the greater flexibility and increased choice of destinations will open up demand to a much wider variety of students from different disciplines, which can only be a good thing.

In short, from an initial position of scepticism, I have found Turing to be an unexpected bonus. It is another example, like the fantastic trade deals we have signed, our hosting of COP26 this year or the ambitious relaunch of our

international education strategy, of how for this Government “Global Britain” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a strategy. And it’s one which I know our world-class universities and ambitious students will embrace.

Nigel Wright: What Canada’s new Conservative leadership thinks about CANZUK

8 Mar

Nigel Wright is the London-based Chair of Canadian Conservatives Abroad (CCA). 

With the United Kingdom’s recent withdrawal from the European Union, the country finds itself needing to negotiate new free trade deals to expand market access for its products and services. This position provides a unique opportunity for the UK to work more closely with other like-minded, Commonwealth countries, to not only allow for free trade between nations, but to come together and advance their shared democratic values on the world stage. A Canada-Australia-New Zealand-United Kingdom (CANZUK) alignment could benefit not only these countries but also the wider global community.

Erin O’Toole, Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada, championed CANZUK during his leadership bid for the Conservative Party of Canada. Citing Canada’s long history of championing the rule of law, human rights, and standing with its allies to defend democratic values globally, O’Toole sees CANZUK as an opportunity to adopt a policy of “aspirational multilateralism,” where these like-minded Commonwealth countries work not only to advance the wellbeing of their citizens but also work to promote a commitment to democratic values on the world stage.

O’Toole’s commitment to CANZUK should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Canadian politics or the policies of the Conservative Party of Canada. In addition to specifically calling for a CANZUK Treaty, the Conservative Party’s official policy states that Canada’s government should work with foreign nations to reduce protectionist policies, in turn allowing for the establishment of free trade agreements.

In fact, one of O’Toole’s predecessors as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, doubled the number of countries with which Canada has reciprocal free trade agreements. Simply put, reciprocal free trade is an important part of present-day Conservative party policy.

Since becoming leader, O’Toole has also made it his goal to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party of Canada. In his televised victory speech after he won the leadership, O’Toole introduced himself to Canadians, telling them that everyone “has a home in the Conservative Party of Canada.” He quickly orchestrated a rebrand and has made efforts to establish the Conservatives as a “modern, pragmatic, mainstream party.” A forward-thinking internationalist agreement like CANZUK shares many similar themes.

With the current hung parliament and the Liberal government widely acknowledged to have bungled the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines for Canada, an election could take place this year. O’Toole’s embrace of CANZUK might provide the Conservative Party of Canada with a foreign policy plank that resonates with Canadians looking for sources of economic growth and for avenues to advance democratic values in a world in which that has become more urgent to do.

One of the cornerstones of CANZUK is freedom of movement, and this policy could give conservative parties a meaningful youth issue. CANZUK proposes allowing professionals, students and recent graduates to travel for work, education or leisure without the difficulties or bureaucratic hurdles associated with applying for visas.

This provides the CANZUK nations with an opportunity to establish an academic exchange similar to Europe’s Erasmus programme, which is popular among students in the EU. Academic exchanges have proven economic benefits. Increasing cross-fertilisation opportunities could enrich the skills and global experience of CANZUK students and help them to form international relationships that can generate trade and investment for Canada.

It is not only students who could benefit from enhanced education opportunities through CANZUK. The freedom of movement associated with the agreement would reduce the bureaucratic red tape that faculty and researchers currently grapple with when they wish to research at another institution or in another country.

This provides an opportunity for member countries’ leading research institutions to widen their net and more easily tap into the knowledge of the other nations leading academics and researchers. If 2020 has taught us anything, its that reducing barriers to research and knowledge sharing is essential in today’s world.

CANZUK could also give its member countries an avenue to help move the world forward. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK are in many respects model countries: peaceful, prosperous, and multi-ethnic pluralist democracies. With countries around the globe stepping back from liberty and rights, the world needs leadership from countries committed to democratic values and freedom more broadly. This agreement could help facilitate much-needed cooperation between four of the world’s democratic leaders.

CANZUK’s member countries are already members of Five Eyes, which includes the United States, and cooperate to share intelligence. CANZUK would create additional mechanisms to help these four nations enhance and coordinate their own defence and foreign affairs capabilities.

With the UK being the only member nation to have a permanent UN Security Council seat, CANZUK could provide a forum for the nations to unite on foreign policy initiatives, with the UK voicing them on their behalf at the council. The agreement would also create an opportunity for increased military collaboration, training and equipment supply which could benefit the smaller militaries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Specifically for Canada, CANZUK could make us a more valuable strategic partner to the US by providing a deeper bridge to the other three allied countries, while simultaneously creating anchor points to help us to preserve our ability to act independently of the US when that is necessary for our national interest. The CANZUK alignment would fit well with the UK’s desired entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Canada should promote.

The prospect of an early federal election in Canada makes this an opportune time to develop the CANZUK idea further. Canadian Conservatives Abroad intends to play its part in doing so.

CCA will be hosting a policy discussion about CANZUK on 20 March during the Conservative Party of Canada’s convention. The event will feature UK MP Andrew Rosindell and Canadian MP Ed Fast. For more information about CCA please visit conservativesabroad.ca

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.