As a part of its quest for independence, Britain decided to leave the Erasmus program. We now have Turing, the global version. So, will it lead us to the sunny uplands?
A few years ago, a friend challenged me to name one positive aspect of the European Union. I said the Erasmus program.
It is a European program that helps young people to spend the year in a University abroad. A laudable goal, one might think.
As a part of Brexit, Britain decided to leave Erasmus. While the government hasn't said much as to why, there are plenty of comments out there, like a recent piece titled Erasmus and Brexit by Robert Tyler, Political Projects Manager of the ECR Party. Mr Tyler makes two arguments:
"Whilst at the same time saving the British taxpayer money — after all the UK put more money into the programme than it got out of it."
"Pulling out of Erasmus captures the essence of those concerns held by leave voters and demonstrates that those people who voted to leave the EU weren't on the whole nativist, protectionist, nationalists like Nigel Farage, but rather more flexible internationalists."
In other words, Erasmus costs too much and the Brexit voters don't like our young people to spend time in Europe.
The argument is instructive by what it omits.
The United Kingdom used to be a practitioner of soft power par excellence, and I am proud to have been recruited a few times to project Britain's soft power. Erasmus helps enormously. It creates anglophiles, those who will be in power in 20 years. Now they will go elsewhere and soft power is lost.
Britain is short of young people with mastery of foreign languages and cultures. Erasmus graduates were of considerable benefit the government, private companies, governments, and other parts of the British economy.
All that is lost, for cost and nativist reasons.
In its place, we have the Turing program, a global version of Erasmus, one that presumably will get the same amount of money. I could not figure out how much Erasmus costs the UK — if you know, please let me know — but Turing gets £100 million. Now, that is apparently not per year, but in total, but they don't tell us for how many years.
So Turing will be much cheaper than Erasmus. I don't see the cheep-and-cheerful Turing version being as good. But in all fairness, lets look at the numbers.
The Government says it will provide funding for around 35,000 students per year, targeting "students from disadvantaged backgrounds".
Lets do the sums. If it is £100 million per year, them each student gets £2,857 to go abroad, pay transportation, tuition and accommodation. Hard to see how that £2,857 will cover anything but a tiny part of the cost. I am not seeing those "students from disadvantaged backgrounds" being able to fund the considerable shortfall. As the £100 million is over many years, scale that £2,857 down accordingly.
The devil is in the details. There certainly are benefits in student exchanges with universities in the United States, but I'm having a hard time seeing that working in practice. Will Turing pay the $72,391 cost of attending Harvard for a year? Will the United States reciprocate? No.
And then there is the Department of Education (DfE) charged with running Turing. Not the most competent of government agencies, and one that finds it very hard to do new things.
I have a bet that Turing will not be a success in five years. A bottle of Dom Pérignon is at stake — with luck, I will lose my bet.
The numbers are not large, and as a British taxpayer, I think both Erasmus and Turing are worth the money.
And if the British government actually cared about student exchanges and all the benefits they bring, it would have done both Turing and Erasmus.
This way it looks just like spiteful politics.