The Turing Scheme: new horizons for international student mobility

“Given the far-reaching benefits of international experience, it’s vital as many young people as possible have the chance to access it”

‘We can see only a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.’ So said the pioneering mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing, in whose honour the Turing Scheme – the UK Government’s global programme to study and work abroad – is named.

It’s a quote that seems to speak to our times: the uncertainty that has defined recent years and the global challenges ahead. Turing himself studied abroad and, as applications open for this year’s funding, I hope he would forgive me for borrowing his words to reflect on the key challenges and priorities in international student mobility.

For students and learners, international mobility –­ the opportunity to study or work in another country – can be a transformative experience. It’s an opportunity to sharpen their skills, expand their knowledge, and broaden their horizons by experiencing life in another country.

But these opportunities have wider benefits too. Students are able to gain the skills and competencies they need in a jobs market where companies are increasingly working in more global and collaborative settings, and to use these skills for the benefit of their communities. By developing capable, culturally agile, and internationally connected individuals, international mobility has a broader societal value beyond the individual.

Given the far-reaching benefits of international experience, it’s vital as many young people as possible have the chance to access it. In 2018/19, just 8% of UK undergraduates undertook a period of study, work or volunteering abroad, with many such opportunities limited to those who can afford it or have the right support in place.

So how do we reverse this trend? One promising approach is the creation of more short-term mobility opportunities. A 2021 report from Universities UK International suggests these can not only boost skills, confidence and career prospects in a similar way to longer placements, but can also expand opportunities to those for whom longer periods away from home can be challenging – such as those with caring responsibilities or other commitments. Widening access is a key priority for the Turing Scheme, with the availability of shorter-term opportunities forming part of their commitment to increasing participation from disadvantaged groups.

At the Association of Commonwealth Universities, we’re also trialling innovations in virtual mobility which, by blending elements of physical and remote international collaboration, can significantly increase the number of opportunities available.

When we expand access to international opportunities, everyone benefits. For organisations, it’s a chance to forge  new relationships around the world. Institutions that host international students are simultaneously enriched by their presence, bringing different perspectives, strengthening international research, and global networks of alumni.

These international connections have never been more important. To borrow again from Turing, there is indeed plenty that needs to be done. From the climate crisis to global recovery from Covid-19, international partnerships will be central to tackling the challenges that define our time – partnerships that often begin with these invaluable ties between people and places.

International cooperation in education is central to the work of the ACU. The organisation was born in the same year as Alan Turing, 1912, although its official launch would follow a year later. This means that for over a century, we have been champions of, and witness to, the transformative power of international education opportunities. Many thousands of students have benefited from the international scholarship schemes we deliver, including the Chevening, Commonwealth, and Marshall Scholarships, and the multilateral Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarships.

We will be bringing these decades of experience to our work with Capita as their principal partner in delivering the Turing Scheme, overseeing the assessment of applications and supporting with monitoring and evaluation. The Scheme, aimed at universities, schools, and further education colleges across the UK, opens up opportunities for young people to learn and train all over the world, and offers a new avenue for the UK education sector to strengthen partnerships with institutions across the globe.

These international partnerships, while longstanding in the university sector, may for many schools and colleges be less familiar territory. So I encourage colleagues reading this to reach out to local schools and offer to support them in establishing international links. Let them share your experience in this area – and let’s work together to ensure the Turing Scheme is accessible to learners right across the education system.

The Turing Scheme opens for applications on 31 March and has immense potential to open up new horizons for individuals and institutions alike. But it will take a commitment from all of us across the education sector if we are to ensure that no one is left behind. 

About the Author:  Dr Joanna Newman MBE FRSA is Chief Executive and Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).