Skip to main content

Turing Scheme

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Turing Scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Education, exchange of knowledge and empathy for others are vital for young people today as they become our citizens and leaders of tomorrow. That is what the Turing scheme says it aims to provide—as did the Erasmus scheme, sadly lost as a result of the Government’s Brexit deal, which removed the scheme unexpectedly at a late stage in negotiations.

As our world becomes smaller but remains so divided, it is important for our young people and children to look outwards. There is nothing like being immersed in a new country to expand one’s mind. It might be possible to learn Arabic on a computer program, but that is a world away from learning how to use Arabic among its native speakers. We have the technology to chat with people on the other side of the world, but that cannot be compared to what is gained by ordering a coffee every day, picking up the local news and making lasting friendships with others of the same age. I may be over-optimistic, but if we want to tackle the strategic and global issues facing the world, cross-border friendships, knowledge-sharing and cultural ties are an important place to start.

Although I am sad that we are in this position, Mr Betts, you would expect me to be a fan of the Turing scheme, and in principle I am. I want those in education in North East Fife and everywhere else to benefit from it and for it to work as well as possible. As a Scottish MP, I would like the Scottish Government to move beyond their pilot to replace the Erasmus scheme and to just get on with it, as the Welsh Government have done with Taith. However, as a supporter of schemes that allow our young people to travel, I am now, with regret, going to list all the ways that the Turing scheme is not working.

Let me start with the funding cycle. On a very basic level, if a student is going to travel abroad for study or work experience, they expect the funding to be in place before they go, but that does not appear to be happening. I will give the example of one of my constituents, Aria, who is a student at the University of St Andrews, but let me be clear that her case is not an anomaly. This is the experience of pretty much every student.

Aria is a third-year student doing Chinese studies and Spanish. She went through the internal processes to arrange her study abroad programme in autumn last year, and was told to apply for funding in February this year. The application is made to the university, which makes an assessment of all the funding it needs for the year and makes its application to the Turing scheme accordingly. The funding decisions were not made by the Turing scheme and passed back to students until 18 August—the middle of summer, although I would argue, from the Scottish perspective, that that is the end of summer, given that schools go back then. That is the best part of six months later.

The official guidance says that decisions will be made in the summer and payments made in September for the new academic year. I did not think we would need to point this out, but not all countries have academic years that start in September. Indeed, Aria had to be in Uruguay before 1 August for a compulsory in-person orientation at the university. She sensibly flew out a few days before in case of delays and to give herself time to settle into her accommodation. It seems incredibly short-sighted of the Government to assume that all other countries across the world using the Turing scheme would follow the same calendar as the UK.

This is a really important debate, and the hon. Member has started with the powerful example of her constituent Aria, who sensibly flew out to Uruguay. She will appreciate that, if Aria had not had funds behind her, she would not have been able to do that. This scheme, which is supposed to get rid of disadvantage and be inclusive, supporting all, actually puts a massive barrier in the way of those from disadvantaged backgrounds if funding is not in place.

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Member for her contribution. I entirely agree that it may not be intention of the scheme, but that is how it is happening in practice and impacting on students.

Further to that point, I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward the debate. It is an important issue, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) also clearly outlined in her intervention. Does the hon. Lady agree that the funding offer needs to take into consideration the massively increased cost of living that we are all experiencing, and the fact that although offers are be being made to more students, the associated necessary costs are putting off low-income households from taking up this incredible opportunity? If low-income households have been affected, the Minister has to respond.

As always, the hon. Member anticipates what I will go on to say. When the funding provided under Erasmus and the funding provided under Turing are compared, there can be no doubt that there has been a real-terms cut—and that is before we take the cost of living into account. I will go on to talk about that.

Even if term starts at the beginning of September, it does not follow that students need cost of living funding to arrive in their bank accounts only on day one of classes. Students have to travel to the country, pay up-front rent costs, buy books, get medical checks and, in some circumstances, get visas. Aria told me that she was quite lucky; although she does not come from a particularly well-off family, they were able to help her find the money for her flight. She has been able to find a cheap flat, and she has been living off some savings from a part-time job last year. Uruguay does not require students to have special visas on arrival, although other countries require proof of funds checks, which Aria tells me she probably would not have passed without the Turing funds.

To come back briefly to flights, I am sure that the Minister will point out that the Turing scheme offers some funds to students from less well-off backgrounds. When I asked Aria about that, she said that she did not know about it, but in any case she could not see how it would have helped her, given that she had to travel before the funding decisions were announced. It is a good idea in theory, but it is poor in practice.

I have three other points to make on the funding model. First, there was a decision to make funds available to institutions on a single-year cycle. That means that when universities and colleges are encouraging students to apply for places abroad, they can only tell them what sort of places might have funding, but not what sort of places actually have funding. That leads to the sort of uncertainty that Aria felt as she travelled to the other side of the world on her own, without any knowledge of whether she would in fact receive financial support, and indeed to the uncertainty she continues to have, as she still has no word on whether she will receive funding for next term, which she is due to spend in Taiwan. As a parent, I cannot imagine the stress that her family must have felt. A 24 or 36-month project cycle would allow institutions to plan partnerships, provide certainty to students and, importantly, ensure wider access for all. That is surely the intention of the Turing scheme, right?

Secondly, I would like the Minister to comment on the amount of funds provided. In response to a written question that I tabled earlier this year, the Minister’s Department set out that countries are determined to have a high or low cost of living with reference to data from the World Bank, Erasmus and the OECD, but it did not explain how the references to each of those data sources impacted the groupings. I find some of the groupings totally baffling. Group 1, the highest cost of living group, contains most of North America, New Zealand and Australia, but the only European country is Switzerland. Group 2, on the other hand, contains most of Europe—equating the cost of living in the Czech Republic with that in Denmark, or that in Antarctica with that in Ireland. It feels a bit like a one-size-fits-all category that has not been properly targeted to the reality of the cost of living overseas, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out. Given that the Government are always quick to say that inflationary issues are a global issue and not simply an issue for the UK Government, I find that strange.

Worryingly, the amount allocated per student has fallen regardless of which country a student travels to. Under Erasmus, the maximum a UK student travelling to a European country in 2021 would receive each month was £415, or £600 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the Turing equivalent is £380 and £490. We have simply fallen behind what Erasmus offers, and the Government must review that at the next spending review.

That brings me on nicely to noting that Turing funding is guaranteed only until the 2025 spending review. If institutions are to build long-lasting relationships, and if the Government are serious about offering education to our young people, funding needs to be guaranteed long into the future; it cannot just be a short-term sticking plaster to pacify those of us who saw the benefits of EU membership and did not want to leave. The situation certainly shows how short-sighted it was to decide, late in the Brexit negotiations, to leave Erasmus.

Finally, there are delays in getting funds to institutions and out to students. I have been dipping in and out of Aria’s story. I mentioned that she found out that she would receive funding on 18 August, some six months after applying and weeks after having to travel to her placement. It is now 5 September, and when my team spoke to her yesterday she had still not received the funds. She is getting her usual student funding, which helps with rent, but there is very little left for day-to-day living. Those sorts of delays clearly put students, who ought to be at the heart of the programme, at risk.

To touch on an important but not particularly exciting element of the debate, I have to tell the Minister that the project reporting tool being used by Capita—and presumably approved by the Department—is terrible. To put it in slightly better language, universities are required to provide updates and make requests for funds to be released, but whenever universities do so, the system locks and they cannot use it again until approved by Capita. That creates an administrative headache and is clearly adding to the payment delays I just mentioned. There is no proper audit trail of what funds have been released and when, and universities are being left to make repeat requests. I urge the Government to engage with universities, Universities UK and the Russell Group to see how the process can be streamlined for everyone’s benefit.

The last point I will touch on is the Government’s short-sightedness regarding the scheme. Even if we ignore the benefit to each and every young person of having the chance to live and learn abroad, the Turing scheme is meant to be a core part of global Britain and how we present ourselves on the world stage. The problem is that those relationships are not one sided, yet the Turing scheme decidedly is. It does not offer any element of reciprocity, which has made it incredibly difficult for institutions to set up longer-term partnerships. That is worsened by the exclusion of professional staff from the scheme. Where previously UK education and research was promoted and strengthened through staff exchanges, now we are left in the cold. It is about being at the forefront of cutting-edge research and development, about tackling the next pandemic and responding to the climate crisis.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She talks about the lack of reciprocity and the inability to form a cohort of students across the world who have connections and then go on in their professional lives to keep in touch. They are what is sorely missing from the Turing scheme. We have heard nothing from this Government about how they are going to address that. The scheme was never just about money, as woeful as that is; it is about making those connections. How are we going to foster them?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. From a reciprocity perspective, for all that we do not necessarily want to talk just about money, there is an economic disbenefit to universities and constituencies such as mine. Students who previously came under the Erasmus scheme may not come under Turing, with a resulting economic loss to both the university and the wider community.

On a more practical level, good working relationships with international institutions are vital to the Turing scheme, given that the decision to apply or waive fees for UK students abroad sits with the host university. There are additional steps the Minister could take to make global Britain a reality and to boost our soft power. It currently costs over £1,000 to sponsor an intern coming to the UK from Europe, and that is now only available to degree students. As Universities UK put it,

“The UK is essentially closed to inbound interns, resulting in a loss of skills to UK business and damage to partnerships, while implicitly expecting other countries to facilitate visas to take in UK outbound interns.”

The relationships between medical, veterinary and health science institutions have been put under immense strain as a result of the Government barring incoming students from treating patients and therefore from taking part in clinical electives. There is no reason for those partnerships to keep going if we cannot provide equal opportunities. An urgent amendment to the visa rules is needed to allow the supervised treatment of patients by visiting students. Coupled with the ongoing uncertainty regarding the future of the Horizon programme, the failings in the strategic intent of Turing means that we continue to retreat from the global stage.

At the other end of the education spectrum, but no less important for our soft power, Brexit has caused a sharp decline in the number of European children who are able to visit the UK on school trips. My party’s policy is to seek to negotiate passport-free travel for UK and EU schoolchildren on a reciprocal basis. I hope that is something the Minister can agree with as a common-sense measure, with a benefit disproportionate to any costs.

I will end by reading something that Aria said to me:

“I never thought I would have the opportunity to study or travel abroad like this and feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to do so. However it has been incredibly stressful. I have never travelled outside of the UK before, and don’t have external financial support if anything goes wrong. More communication from the scheme administrators and earlier decision making would make such a difference to students like me.”

Surely we can all agree on that?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate. I share her passion for international placements. I do not accept completely the picture that she set out. I am not saying the Turing scheme is perfect, but I am proud of it and am working hard in the Department to ensure that it is a success, and I want to set out the good things that it is doing. I will try to answer some of the points she raised, and I will be happy to write to her after the debate about those that I do not answer.

The Turing scheme is a global programme for students to study and work abroad. It provides students, learners and pupils across the UK with the chance to gain vital international experience and to boost their employability. It is worth remembering that the scheme is named after Alan Turing, who taught and studied internationally. Participants can develop a wide range of soft skills, language skills and a better understanding of other cultures.

The hon. Lady may recall that my predecessor announced the second opening of applications for the Turing scheme at the University of St Andrews in her constituency. It is a beautiful university; I went there many years ago on a visit. I am sure that she will be as pleased as I am that St Andrews has been successful in its application to the scheme for the third year running, and that organisations right across Scotland have been awarded funding for almost 4,000 participants, nearly 600 more than last year.

The Minister talks about the funding that has been allocated, but a recent Financial Times report stated that universities that applied to the scheme received only 35% to 45% of the money they felt they required to support their students.

I will set this out further, but the hon. Lady, for whom I have huge respect, will know that the Turing scheme is not just for university students; we have expanded it significantly for students in future education and in schools. If we look at it in the round, as I said, organisations across Scotland have had funding for almost 4,000 participants, nearly 600 more than the previous year.

My three objectives for the Turing scheme are, in essence, social justice, enhancing skills and securing value for money. I am sure that the hon. Members for North East Fife and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) will know that the Turing scheme is extending the ladder of opportunity for over 40,000 students and learners across the UK to spend time studying or working abroad, 60% of whom will be from an under-represented or less advantaged background. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is no longer in his place, but there is more money for living costs and additional costs, such as for passports. I have met people in my own constituency from disadvantaged backgrounds who have benefited from the Turing scheme, and they are not from universities; they are from FE.

There is good evidence, as we know, that time spent studying or working abroad can be transformational for students, improving graduate outcomes and employability and building skills and confidence. Universities UK says—the hon. Member for North East Fife will agree with this—that graduates who participated in an international placement are less likely to be unemployed, more likely to have achieved a first or 2:1, and more likely to be in further study. Those in work are more likely to be in a graduate-level job, and on average they earn 5% more than their peers.

I see the Turing scheme as a remarkable vehicle for helping to improve the skills pipeline and helping people into high-quality jobs. Universities, colleges and schools will share almost £105 million of funding to offer placements to their students. No matter what kind of course students are on, whether they are studying for a degree in foreign languages, doing a T-level or an apprenticeship—the scheme was not open to apprentices before—or a school pupil, opportunities made possible through the Turing scheme can have a hugely positive impact on their studies and their skills development.

I will in a moment; because of the time, I want to get on a bit and try to answer some of the questions from the hon. Member for North East Fife.

This year saw significantly higher interest in the scheme from colleges and schools, including a nearly 50% increase in the number of successful applications in the further education sector. I think that technical education and training routes should have parity of prestige with academic routes, and I want to see even more FE learners and apprentices offered Turing scheme opportunities.

I do not disagree with anything the Minister says—40,000 students is wonderful—but we cannot help but make a comparison with Erasmus+, from which 55,000 students were able to benefit. We have heard about the impact on the wider economy and, as he says, students’ ability to access better degrees and a better life outcome. Has the Department looked at how much money we have potentially lost as a result of the lower number of students engaging in such activity?

Actually, the number of students is comparable, and it is a new scheme. It is also worth remembering that the Erasmus scheme is not value for money. The UK was putting way more taxpayer money into the scheme than we got out of it. The Erasmus+ scheme was also available for teachers to go overseas. We have decided to focus on students, which I think is a very good thing.

On the subject of those who can access study here, I invite the Minister to address the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in relation to those studying medicine and veterinary medicine. Such is the nature of teaching in modern courses that those are almost entirely clinically based. Does the Minister not understand that—I suspect the problem lies with the Home Office rather than his Department—exclusions around the facility to teach in fact exclude those students from any international exchange of this sort?

Obviously, visas are a matter for the Home Office, as the right hon. Gentleman recognises. We are expanding medical places and we have international students in our medical schools. We have expanded hugely, as per recent announcements, the number of nurses, doctors and doctor apprenticeships. That is different from the Turing scheme, which is about ensuring that students from this country—from FE and apprenticeship backgrounds as well as universities—can go abroad and take part in that important scheme. Previously, 50% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds had access to these schemes; I have increased that to 60%, because I want more disadvantaged people to benefit. The scheme provides enhanced funding for students who need it, as I have mentioned.

It is also my aim to ensure that the Turing scheme is value for money. It was introduced because a fair and proportionate deal could not be found for our continued participation in Erasmus+. It was designed from the start to deliver an improved benefit to the UK taxpayer. As I have said, it was right to prioritise funding for students, learners and pupils at UK organisations rather than non-educational placements for staff or inbound placements in the UK for students in other countries. I do not think taxpayers’ money should be taken for granted because of the competitive annual application process of the Turing scheme. High-quality, deliverable and impactful international placements that improve skills and employability are essential to both the learners and the taxpayer.

I know that the Turing scheme draws comparisons with its predecessor, Erasmus. Direct comparison between the Erasmus+ programme and the Turing scheme is not possible, given that European Commission data for Erasmus+ does not specify the number of student participants for education sectors other than higher education. Although Erasmus+ included some staff mobility, the Turing scheme, as I have said, is focused on student placements. We can be confident that the Turing scheme is expanding opportunities for UK students. This goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). Erasmus+ participant numbers for higher education ranged from just under 16,000 to just over 17,000 each year from 2015 to 2020. The Turing scheme is funding over 22,000 students this year, and it funded more than 23,000 HE placements last year and around 28,000 in 2021-22. The schemes operate very differently.

On the funding delays, I am working hard to ensure that students do not have the difficulties that the hon. Member for North East Fife highlighted. I am happy to look at the individual case that she mentioned. Education providers have had to make some complex changes to their projects within the allocated funding, because we had to reduce their requested allocation in order to manage the high demand in the ’23-24 Turing scheme. There have been issues in navigating the new processes for payment requests. Capita has offered webinars and one-to-one support where needed to help education providers understand the process, and I am working closely with Capita to collect and act on feedback from the sector to ensure the scheme works as it should for all students. Applicants were informed of their application outcomes on 3 July. We are working to bring that date forward in future years, so that there are not the difficulties that the hon. Lady highlighted.

In conclusion, we will of course carry on evolving the scheme and making improvements, including by expanding opportunities for apprentices, which I care about deeply. I cannot confirm funding well in advance—as the hon. Lady will know, funding is always confirmed ahead of the next fiscal event—but the sector should embrace the Turing scheme, as it has done by submitting competitive bids, adapting its approach to delivering international mobility, and maximising opportunities for less advantaged and unrepresented students.

I am grateful to the Minister for outlining some of the strategic challenges, but it is very difficult for institutions to think about embracing a scheme when they have no certainty of its long-term future.

I guarantee that the Turing scheme has a long-term future. I am not the guy from the Treasury and I cannot say how much it will be funded each year, but it will be funded properly and well, and we are determined that it will be a great success and that we will iron out some of the problems that she rightly highlighted. I am not saying that there have not been difficulties. I want to try to make it work.

The Turing scheme is a relatively new, demand-led scheme that was introduced at considerable pace. It has been shown to be a success and a remarkable skills development and career opportunity for people across the UK. I believe it will increase skills, enhance social justice and ensure good jobs for participants. I am pleased to be here today to champion the scheme and I look forward to working with higher education, further education, apprenticeship bodies and apprentices to realise its potential and enable students around the country to benefit from it regardless of their background. As I said, I have increased from 50% to 60% the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who will benefit from the Turing scheme. That is right, because we should ensure that the most disadvantaged can benefit from this brilliant opportunity. I sincerely hope that Turing scheme alumni are proud to have participated and recognise that having done so will stand them in good stead for their current studies and their future careers.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.