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.

Sally-Ann Hart: This crisis has highlighted the urgent need for affordable, secure and comfortable homes

17 Sep

Sally-Ann Hart is the MP for Hastings and Rye and was a councillor in Rother.

Over the past few months our country has suffered from a debilitating and distressing illness which has affected each and every one of us to varying degrees. Some of the most vulnerable, those who sleep on our streets, were scooped up and housed. The Government showed its heart and there should be no reason why homelessness should persist. We now need to ensure that the once homeless do not become so again.

As a Conservative, I fundamentally believe in home ownership – that everyone should have the opportunity to own their own home. The Government is rightly engaging in an ambitious policy to “build, build, build” good quality homes that people want to live in. But, we cannot, and should not, forget or ignore the necessity for a safety net; for good quality social homes that people enjoy living in. We know that not everyone can afford to buy their own home and that some people will spend their whole lives in social housing whilst many will use it as a springboard to buy their own home.

On becoming the MP for the beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, which has some of the worst levels of deprivation in the country, I met up with a number of children’s, family and homeless charities and organisations to gain a clearer picture of the needs and issues affecting disadvantaged people and families.

It is painfully obvious how housing can make or break a child’s chances in life. Coronavirus has highlighted not only how important our homes are to us, but also the extent of our housing crisis and the need for affordable, secure and comfortable homes. The Homes at the Heart campaign, run by the National Housing Federation, urges the Government to focus on building social homes as the heart of our social and economic recovery.

Building new homes will help the country recover from this health and economic crisis by creating jobs and boosting the economy. Last year, housing associations in England built more than 45,600 affordable homes – more than a quarter of all new homes. This added an estimated £2.4 billion to the national economy, supporting more than 43,500 jobs. Housing associations’ day-to-day management of their existing homes adds an estimated £8 billion to the national economy, supporting more than 130,000 jobs.

Building social homes will also improve the lives of so many people; families living in temporary accommodation or living in overcrowded homes, rough sleepers and those struggling to pay rent. According to the National Housing Federation, 62,580 families are living in temporary accommodation, with 3.7 million people living in overcrowded homes. 30,000 people spent lockdown in a home that consists of one room.

It is unacceptable that millions of people across the country spent lockdown in homes that are damp and mouldy, insecure or pushing them into debt. In my own constituency, I have witnessed the health consequences of people living in homes that drip with condensation, covered with black mould.

There is no doubt that the lack of space and cramped living conditions have played a big role in causing health problems for huge numbers of people during lockdown. According to the NHF, more than half of those (52 per cent) who said their homes were not big enough said they had suffered from health problems. In parts of the country, evidence suggests that overcrowding may have accelerated the contraction rates of Coronavirus.

I recently visited Brighton Housing Trust, which is a housing association and charity operating throughout Sussex, employing over 250 people. It also provides advice services, including advice given to tenants facing eviction (funded by the Ministry of Justice through the Legal Aid Agency) in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings and last year prevented 927 households from becoming homeless.

Brighton Housing Trust is rooted in combatting homelessness, creating opportunities and promoting change. It supports rough sleepers and those who are at risk of becoming homeless. The Trust provides a range of valuable services to disadvantaged local residents including 83 permanent homes in Hastings and St Leonard’s. Its Hastings Advice Centre worked with 498 households in 2019/20, the majority of whom were over 45 years of age.

It also provides advice and support for young people through Hastings Young Peoples Service, providing homes for 31 homeless young people. The Trust leads an eight year National Lottery funded £9.2 million partnership across Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton – the Fulfilling Lives Partnership – that looks at systems change for those with multiple and complex needs. It also provides the Macmillan Welfare Benefits Advice Service giving free and confidential welfare benefits advice for people in East Sussex living with cancer, their families and carers.

Locally-focused housing associations do more than providing homes; they are well placed to provide support with sustaining tenancies, help with skills training and employment advice, provide the wrap around care to those who need it to sustain their tenancies following rough sleeping as well as providing local jobs. It is important that the Government incentivises the building and delivery of homes for social rent. If we increase the supply of homes for affordable social rent, it will not only save taxpayers money, boost the economy and will provide the bedrock of safe and secure homes from which many of our residents will flourish.