Fears are growing that a proposed Scottish alternative to the Turing exchange scheme has been shelved indefinitely after ministers admitted there was no timetable for consulting on it.
The concern comes amid continuing frustration following a Conservative decision to withdraw Britain from the EU’s Erasmus+ programme.
Ministers in London insist Turing, which was rolled out in the wake of Brexit, is offering “tremendous global opportunities”. However, its delivery has been dogged by criticisms regarding the lack of dedicated funding for international student and academic placements.
With European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen closing the door on separate Scottish participation in Erasmus+, the SNP-led administration in Edinburgh confirmed last year that it intended to create its own education exchange scheme.
The party’s Programme for Government, published in September 2021, states the programme will aim to “support the international mobility of staff and learners”. The document also says ministers at Holyrood will continue pushing for access to Erasmus+. But worries are increasing over the glacial rate of progress after higher education minister Jamie Hepburn said in a written answer that there was no “confirmed” timetable for a consultation process.
Liam McArthur, Liberal Democrat MSP for the Orkney Islands, has accused SNP leaders of avoiding the “hard work” necessary to making their proposal a reality. He also said the situation north of the Border compared poorly with that in Wales, where ministers have unveiled a “Brexit-busting”, five-year international exchange scheme backed with funding of up to £65 million.
He added: “The Erasmus+ programme was a fantastic initiative which opened up the world for Scottish universities and students alike.
“It helped build relationships and provided invaluable life experiences for so many young people. It was a needless casualty of Brexit.
“At the election the SNP promised a Scottish exchange programme but now it seems to have been shelved indefinitely. The SNP are happy to burnish their pro-European credentials in an election campaign but when push comes to shove they can’t be bothered with the hard work.
“There is already a scheme in place in Wales which Scottish ministers could learn from. Otherwise, a generation of students will have missed out.”
Pete Wishart chairs the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.
Mr McArthur’s remarks come after Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, wrote to Scottish Secretary Alister Jack to seek clarity over the UK Government’s response to a Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) report on challenges facing the higher education sector.
Called Universities and Scotland, the document presents a range of recommendations and argues that the Turing exchange scheme should be expanded so it funds inward-bound international students and opportunities for academic staff. However, last month, SAC, which is chaired by Mr Wishart, warned that the UK Government response had left key questions unanswered.
Mr Hepburn said the administration in Edinburgh remained “committed” to Erasmus+. He added: “In the interim, and in recognition of the importance of educational mobility, we are developing a bespoke Scottish education exchange programme.
“This programme will support participants from across Scotland’s education system and help maintain Scotland’s place as an outward looking, internationally connected destination for work and study.”
In its response to the SAC report, the UK Government said Turing prioritised “pupils, students and learners over staff and inward mobility funding to ensure that as many of our students as possible can benefit, including a focus on widening access for disadvantaged students”.
A spokeswoman added: “Scotland’s universities are world-leading institutions and we are very pleased the UK is able to support them in a number of ways, from facilitating visas for international students to substantial research funding.
“The UK Government’s Turing scheme is offering tremendous global opportunities for Scottish students.
“We will continue to work with the Scottish Government and other partners as we continue to support Scotland’s higher education sector.”