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Long-term decisions for a brighter future?  Must’ve missed that…

Rishi Sunak has a new pledge as well as a new slogan, ‘Long-term decisions for a brighter future’.  It might not be catchy and it might not be bearing itself out at the moment, but for me and millions of young people across the country, it feels like a kick in the teeth. Alongside other failures on university housing, strike negotiations, and environmental pledges, the choice to leave the Erasmus scheme and the failure of its placement have been disastrous. The last thirteen years of Conservative government really could have done with some of that ‘long-term’ decision-making.

Let’s kick things off with Brexit: a flawed plan in the eyes of many, especially the young, but not necessarily one that had to have the catastrophic impact on students and young people that it has. Perhaps most problematic has been the end of the freedom of movement and the Erasmus+ scheme, enjoyed by Britains since 1983 and expanded even further in 2014.The Turing Scheme, the British replacement that the government hailed as an improvement thanks to the global opportunities that it offers, has proved complex, insufficient, and chaotic for universities and students alike.

First, it is worth outlining the key differences between the Turing and Erasmus+ schemes.  As of 2014, the EU scheme encapsulated all education, training, youth, and sport programmes covering both tuition fees and some living costs on a reciprocal basis. The result has been thousands of university courses across the country that offer ‘years abroad’, generally in the third year of a four-year course, in which the student is expected to spend a set amount of time abroad either working or studying: I am enrolled in one of these courses myself.

Despite the promise of ‘global opportunities’, something that Erasmus admittedly didn’t offer, the Turing scheme has been a sorry excuse for a replacement. Most obviously, the fact that it doesn’t cover tuition fees has completely changed the landscape. Host universities are expected to simply waive these costs but the vast majority don’t and individual universities are left to establish their own reciprocal arrangements with partner institutions. Evidently, this puts smaller and less well-established institutions at a huge disadvantage and even the largest are only able to offer a fraction of the opportunities they did in the past. The paperwork and processes of setting up these agreements simply takes too much time. Even the University of Oxford, perhaps the most well-established of all higher education institutions in the country, only offered eleven funded places for Spanish students in the academic year 2023/24.

The government points to the Turing Scheme’s support of disadvantaged students as one of its primary advantages and indeed, it offers top-ups to the stipend that others receive on a needs and destination-assessed basis. Depending on whether your country is categorised as high or medium cost, students from disadvantaged backgrounds can receive as much as £490 a month if their stay lasts more than eight weeks. In reality though, that funding is allocated to fewer institutions on a much less reliable basis.  

The Erasmus+ scheme reviews its funding every six or seven years, meaning that universities are able to plan ahead significantly and advertise accurately to prospective applicants. In stark contrast, the Turing Scheme reviews its funding each and every year with its first two years showing huge variation (the University of Warwick saw funding fall by 30% in 2023). Even worse, universities discover the total funding that they will receive in July at the earliest and often not until August, leaving students in the lurch and unsure as to whether they will even be able to complete their travels and studies.  

Furthermore, students wanting to spend any more than 90 days inside the EU now have to apply for VISAs. Not only is this a costly process that requires paperwork and often certain proof of income and/or funding (clearly disadvantaging students from lower economic backgrounds) but it also forces long-term planning, usually starting six months in advance.  Despite this, students beginning their studies in September won’t know how their university has chosen to allocate its funding until August at the very earliest. Again, well-established institutions such as Oxford University are able to offer guarantees and cover the costs if their funding varies: others are left with reduced funds or nothing at all. Despite the fact that now the entire world is ‘open’ to students as opposed to the ‘confines’ of Europe, the Turing Scheme still only paid out £106 million in 22/23. That is £22 million pounds less than during our last year as members of the Erasmus scheme in 2020.

Combined with the ending of free healthcare and the difficulty in obtaining any kind of work visa, students and young people are simply discouraged from undertaking long-term study periods or work placements. Instead, there has been a substantial rise in those finding short-term solutions, sometimes only lasting two weeks. The depressing thing, of course, is that it didn’t have to be like this. During negotiations, the European Union invited the UK to become an associated third-party member of the Erasmus+ programme alongside Turkey, Iceland, and others. Instead, much like until recently with the Horizon science programme, the UK declined the invitation. Unlike Horizon, the UK will now have to wait until 2027 to get another opportunity.

The impact of a hard Brexit, of course, goes far beyond university students and the shortcomings of the Turing Programme. Those travelling and looking for work before, after, or instead of university study are hugely limited. Personally, leaving school in the last year of the transition period, I received several internship and job offers from across Spain, even during the COVID-tainted summer of 2020. Now, with vastly more experience in an array of industries and in the third year of a degree at the University of Oxford, I have not succeeded in securing any of the 56 that I have applied for to date.

As much as some bemoaned the influx of young people from across the continent and the diversity that they provided across several industries, especially hospitality, before Brexit, the same is now true in reverse. It is simply not possible to obtain a right to work in the vast majority of EU countries without a job offer and the vast majority of companies won’t even process an internship or job application without the right to work. Try squaring that circle.

All that said, I am writing this in a café in Sant Pol, just outside of Barcelona. I have indeed made it here to study on a master’s course in hospitality management – albeit entirely self-funded. I’ve managed to make this small part of this year work but my biggest concern is not just for the rest of my twelve months and my life, but for those who aren’t able to pay their own way onto such courses. Slowly but surely, the UK government’s ‘Long-term decision making” is putting language learning and the most valuable of cultural experiences behind a paywall. That future isn’t feeling so bright… 

Image Credit: Andrew Parsons/ Number 10 Downing Street CC BY 2.0 Deed via Flickr

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