By Scott Simmonds, researcher
Here at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, we regularly highlight examples of wasteful spending in the higher education sector. From the University Rich List to exposing vice-chancellors’ costly cars and ritzy residences, we routinely reveal the lavish spending that comes from university budgets. So we looked at the UK’s new Turing Scheme, set to replace the EU’s Erasmus+, to see if this might be one example where British taxpayers are getting much better value for money from our institutions.
As Lord Parkinson explained last month, to stay part of Erasmus+ after 2020, the UK would have had to pay £2 billion more than it received over the next Erasmus budget. That figure alone is alarming. With the public finances under strain due to coronavirus and the tax burden at historic levels, any savings are more than welcome.
Would it be worth it? British students themselves were not necessarily enthusiastic about the Erasmus scheme. Of the countries taking part, the UK was a distant sixth in terms of students studying abroad. In close seventh was the Netherlands, which has a population size roughly a quarter of the UK’s. Whereas in France, a similar sized country to the UK, three times as many students used the scheme.
Most Erasmus nations either have many more students studying abroad than arriving to study. or only receive a small number of extra students. That makes Britain the only country subsidising large numbers of EU students to study. Students do contribute to the economy through spending and part-time work, but it still begs the question - was the government paying huge sums for something that would most likely have happened anyway?
The top destination for international students in the OECD is the US, with 18% of the global market share. In equal second place were the UK and Australia, accounting for 8% each. There is clearly a strong demand to study in English speaking countries with strong university sectors. The government recognised this in 2019 and created the International Education Strategy: a joint initiative between the Department for International Trade and the Department for Education designed to increase the number of international students in Britain. Using existing government departments results in better value for money, while also tailoring the scheme to the UK’s strengths and needs, instead of being mixed in with the wider EU priorities of Erasmus.
While not the only metric to judge the success of the scheme (in fact, student mobility makes up only 63% of the Erasmus budget), placements abroad were used as the main selling point. When it comes to the other 37%, Britain already provides most of the advantages offered. Research and development funding was already available through other areas of government spending such as the UKRI and AHRC. If anything, that funding was given extremely generously. Recent projects funded by taxpayers included an almost £100,000 grant to Edinburgh Napier University for an “international community filmmaking project” in the Pacific to “work with communities around issues of gender inequality”, and over £200,000 on a project to “identify the creators of artistic content that engage with political discourse across regions in Nigeria” at Bournemouth University.
These grants, questionable as they may be, are no different from the types of projects funded by Erasmus, like the €235,000 project titled "Developing Multimedia Learning for Trans-cultural Collaboration and Competence in Nursing" at the University of Nottingham in 2017. Staying part of Erasmus would have only seen the same money available to be wasted, but with less accountability. Now we’ve left the scheme, the government also has the final word on what kind of projects are worth funding, making it more flexible to the UK’s priorities.
The only major area provided by Erasmus that was not already available was support for students studying abroad. The new Turing Scheme, starting in September, will provide funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas at an annual cost of £100 million. Far less than the cost of staying in Erasmus, and can also accommodate more students. It will increase engagement by targeting students from disadvantaged areas which typically don’t have high participation rates. However, British professors and students from foreign universities will not be eligible for the new programme as they were under Erasmus.
This slimmed down, targeted approach will provide much needed savings for the taxpayer. In combination with other specialist areas, exiting Erasmus will save the UK money while not losing any core services. Only 6.6% of undergraduate students in the UK study, work, or volunteer abroad during their degree. The Turing scheme will hopefully remedy this situation and reduce taxpayers’ burden at the same time.