News that the UK government’s Turing student exchange programme will be privatised and run by outsourcing firm Capita heaps further misery on an already meagre alternative to the iconic Erasmus programme.

Westminster’s Turing Scheme has already left young people underwhelmed, as the beleaguered initiative seeks to prioritise the “global Britain” agenda by replacing EU-bound exchanges with inadequately funded ones to far-flung destinations. And the ability of young people to shape and benefit from the scheme will be placed into further doubt as its management is handed over to a for-profit outsourcing firm.

Presumably Capita is not undertaking this work out of the goodness of its heart and expects to profit from its efforts. This means private profits will be financed over student places – a miserable and predictable development.

Reports suggest that part of the rationale for Capita’s appointment is the budgetary undercutting of civil society and educational expert organisations, setting concerns that the “nickel and diming” of vital opportunities will affect their quality, reach and impact.

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Such practice seeping into education and youth services will be a familiar tale for anyone who has experienced promises of privatised operators running public services, for example the UK’s highly subsidised private rail network – over-promising and under-delivering before promptly returning to taxpayers and demanding that profits be further subsidised as costs match realities undercut in the bidding process.

The risk, therefore, is that a bidding war on the administration of the Erasmus replacement becomes a race to the bottom and that companies with little experience of or contact with young people are left determining their futures.

Students and young people already suffer from the UK government’s general intransigence, not least in relation to its approach to procurement with eye-watering costs and questionable oversight.

Erasmus is an iconic and noble programme which has served Europe’s youth and students well for more than 35 years, yet it still has much further to grow. A recent decision to nearly double its funding will see the scheme massively expand its reach and impact.

The UK Government must ensure its replacement keeps pace with the growing Erasmus scheme. But just as the bar increases in Europe, Westminster appears to be responding by reducing the bar at home and in turn providing yet another sad example of the so-called Brexit dividend.

Recent plans announced by the Scottish and Welsh governments to secure true alternatives to Erasmus do provide a light and are to be welcomed. But little detail is known of the schemes and the devolved governments must also make great effort to ensure that they do not follow in Turing’s footsteps.

We are currently out of Erasmus with no alternative in place. That disadvantage compared to the rest of Europe cannot be allowed to continue, not least as we exit the pandemic. Therefore, a clear road map should be established so that the current situation is brought to an end as soon as possible – and so that the scheme’s design can involve service users, youth and student reps and experts.

The devolved governments must also ensure a responsible and expert management of their programmes by ensuring students and young people are at the very heart of designing, maintaining and evolving this provision.

Ensuring that the scheme does not require to provide profits for a private company to run it would be a start.

Finally, these programmes should be careful to avoid repeating the mistake of Turing in assuming that Erasmus is only a university exchange programme by replicating – and if possible linking into the EU’s mobility funding for schools, colleges, and youth organisations.

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Doing so will be no small feat for devolved governments still struggling under a decade of austerity and the punishing fiscal challenges of Brexit and Covid – and they must be highly commended for attempting to make up for Westminster’s vandalism with limited means.

But those means might also be strengthened if we were to utilise our great talent for hosting by partnering with other governments at all levels in Europe to reduce that burden while also facilitating two-way exchanges.

The challenge is big but efforts are as noble and rewarding as the scheme they seek to compensate for. Designing schemes which reflect, keep pace and engage with the EU’s Erasmus+ will ensure that young people in their countries are not left aside while adding domestic comparison alongside Erasmus+ to push Turing to do, and be, better.

This article originally featured on our sister title, The National in Scotland.

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