Bold aspirations for post-Brexit mobility schemes

Bold aspirations for post-Brexit mobility schemes Exchange 2021

The annual EAIE Conversation Starter comprises a series of in-depth, thought-provoking essays exploring different facets of the theme of our annual gathering. As we count down to the 2021 Community Exchange, this summer’s essays will engage with various aspects of how we can go braver and bolder in the face of daunting global and regional challenges. Kicking off this year’s Conversation Starter series on the blog, today’s essay surveys the post-Brexit landscape of mobility between the UK, Europe and beyond, drilling down into a new Welsh mobility programme existing in parallel to the recently announced Turing scheme.

Universities in the United Kingdom have witnessed seismic shifts in the landscape of international student mobility in 2020 and 2021. The immediate impact of COVID-19 on our international engagement is now well-recognised but the pandemic and its legacy will likely continue to shape our international partnerships and world-wide activities for years to come. We are also beginning to see how the UK’s exit from the European Union is playing out in practice. Exploring how the UK’s new arrangements for international student mobility will play out in the post-Brexit era and how UK universities may engage with the new agenda to support their bold aspirations for exchange partnerships is an important exercise at this moment in time, both for UK-based higher education institutions and their many partners and stakeholders across Europe and around the world.

Rethinking a winning formula

The value of international learning mobility is widely recognised by governments, university leaders and students. The benefits of participation in international mobility for academic and personal development and their employability, together with the wider benefits for local economies, make these activities a priority for national education policy and higher education institutions. With the growing number and variety of opportunities available to learners, the engagement in higher education student and staff mobility had been on a strong upward trajectory before being severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Erasmus+ 2019 report detailed the achievements of ‘yet another record year’, both in terms of distributed funding and number of participants (European Commission, 2020). Similarly, the picture for the UK had been one of year-on-year growth in the number of students going abroad to study, work or volunteer during their undergraduate degree, with participation rates reaching 7.8% for the 2016–17 graduating cohort (Universities UK, 2019). The UK is one of the most popular destinations for incoming international students in the world and was, for example, the fourth most popular host for Erasmus+ exchanges in 2018 (European Commission, 2019). In practice, the UK has consistently hosted significantly more incoming students than those going abroad (64% more through Erasmus+ in 2018).

For many in UK higher education, the UK Government’s decision to associate with Horizon Europe but not Erasmus+ came both as a shock and with a sense of disbelief. The Erasmus scheme has been such an important part of the institutional landscape that it was with profound disappointment that the UK chose to leave what had become a familiar community. However, as the dust settles, many are now seeing this as an opportunity to rethink the way in which we approach international mobility. Moving outside the Erasmus structures provides a stimulus to create new ways of working that further enhance the student experience.

Two new international mobility schemes in the UK

The UK Government’s commitment of more than £100m to the Turing scheme in 2021/22, as a national scheme for international placements, clearly demonstrates the importance the government attaches to international learning mobility. Not only is this a substantial investment in its own right, but the scheme has also been set up to support a comprehensive variety of outgoing placements and to widen participation in an inclusive manner. It is anticipated that in its first year the Turing scheme will support around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on study and work placements across the world. For UK universities, an important aspect of the Turing scheme is its global reach, opening opportunities to provide a much broader range of fully-funded placements for outgoing students.

In a major shift of emphasis, the Turing scheme will only support the outward mobility of UK-based students. This lack of reciprocity of funding was one of the reasons behind the Welsh Government’s decision in March 2021 to establish its own International Learning Exchange (ILE) programme. With a £65m funding commitment, the ILE programme aims to support 15,000 outward and 10,000 inward mobilities between Wales and the world, for students and staff across higher and further education, vocational education and training, adult education, youth work settings and schools. The ILE programme places notable emphasis on the value of reciprocal exchange and the role of staff mobility in underpinning collaborative engagement. In a departure from the Turing scheme, the ILE programme was launched with an initial commitment to support mobilities over four years from 2022 to 2026, with a particular aim to enable existing partnerships in Europe to continue and to establish new ones.

Re-positioning the UK on the global mobility map

Looking to the future, what are the implications of these shifts in the funding landscape for UK and European universities that wish to continue to work together to grow their international learning mobilities? At the outset it is worth stating unequivocally that the UK and Wales remain open for student exchanges. The first bidding round to the Turing scheme has demonstrated strong, sustained demand across UK institutions for study and work placements in Europe. The strength of partnerships, the high quality of the learning environments, language and cultural diversity, and geographical proximity are just some of the reasons why Europe will likely remain the UK’s most important partner region for outgoing student mobility for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, EU students may be deterred from coming to the UK due to reduced funding, the cost of UK visas, health surcharges and potentially higher living costs. However, European universities with a commitment to maintain and develop their exchange partnerships with UK institutions, and a vision for ways to achieve balanced flows of students, will be pushing at open doors with their expressions of interest.

Departing from the familiar Erasmus+ framework for renegotiating agreements will be a learning curve on both sides but also an opportunity to review, refresh and recalibrate. The new Erasmus+ programme, the Turing scheme and the Welsh ILE programme have notable commonalities. They all support a wide variety of mobilities, including short-term programmes. All have a strong focus on social inclusion with a solid commitment to widening participation among those with otherwise limited opportunities for international experiences. When universities participating in Erasmus+, Turing or ILE invest in the development of new and more inclusive forms of mobility, additional opportunities for collaboration will emerge for those motivated to seek them. All three programmes have a global remit. Up to 20% of the Erasmus+ higher education mobility funds will be eligible to support mobility outside Erasmus+ programme countries. The Turing scheme and the Welsh ILE programme have no such cap and allow students to undertake mobilities to countries anywhere in the world. Given that all three programmes have a shared ambition to cover the widest possible geographic scope, opportunities for UK and EU institutions to team with global partners for the delivery of multilateral mobility will open up.

A multifaceted system is emerging in the UK. All UK universities have access to the Turing Scheme, whilst those in Wales have access to both Turing and the ILE programme. Students in Northern Ireland may be able to access Erasmus+ via Irish universities. Scotland, no doubt, will be weighing its national options, supplementing what is offered by Turing, just as the ILE programme does in Wales. These new asymmetries will have implications for how universities engage in international exchange partnerships. From the perspective of Cardiff University, we see this as an opportunity for innovation in our approach to mobility. The Welsh Government have entrusted us with hosting and co-developing their new ILE programme and the new funding landscape in the UK and Wales has the potential to support more customised exchange arrangements with European universities. The future of mobility partnerships may be shaped less by symmetry and direct reciprocity but more by the specific needs and priorities on either side to deliver mutual benefits, potentially by different means. At Cardiff, we will be seeking ways to better integrate international mobility across our education provision, our research and innovation activities, as well as our civic mission strategy. As the institution with the largest volume of international student and staff mobilities in Wales, we will have a keen interest in the development of new high-quality short-term programmes with our partners alongside the more traditional year and semester abroad activities. We would also like to invite our partners to innovate with us to make our exchanges more sustainable in a net-zero carbon environment. In this context, the virtual component to international mobility, which we have come to appreciate over the last year, will be an important area for further development.

Time to innovate

It is worth reminding ourselves that the initial Turing scheme commitment is only for 2021/22 and that the multi-annual ILE programme is still in its infancy. For both programmes, the coming year provides a unique window of opportunity for universities in the UK and Europe to redefine their relationships and explore new forms of collaboration through which to deliver international mobility activities. If universities are proactive, innovative and prepared to adapt their ways of working, Turing and ILE offer real opportunities to shape the scale and future direction of these funding instruments in a visionary way. The ILE programme in particular offers additional scope for novel multidimensional and multilateral exchange actions for those willing to explore the boundaries of what is possible.

In the spirit of the theme for this year’s virtual meeting of the EAIE, the new international exchange landscape offers opportunities for those brave enough and bold enough to embrace new approaches for the benefit of their students and staff. At Cardiff University, we welcome the opportunity to further develop our exchange programmes with our existing and new partners.

Questions for discussion

1. What are the positive opportunities that the UK’s new mobility programmes offer to your university’s aspirations for developing student and staff exchanges?

2. What prospects might you see for your institution to begin to identify a smaller number of more strategic partnerships, built on a wider range of opportunities, or around deeper relationships?

3. How do we maintain the attractiveness of the UK to European students as a destination for study and work placements?

4. How do we find mutually beneficial partnerships in situations where student flows between institutions are imbalanced?


European Commission. (2019). Erasmus+ Annual Report 2019. Retrieved from

European Commission. (2020). Erasmus+ Annual report 2019: statistical annex, annex 15. Retrieved from

Universities UK. (2019). Gone international: rising aspirations. Retrieved from

Rudolf K. Allemann
Cardiff University, United KingdomProfessor Rudolf Allemann is Pro Vice-Chancellor, International and Student Recruitment and Head of the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering at Cardiff University, Wales.

Eevi Laukkanen
Cardiff University, United KingdomEevi Laukkanen is Business Manager, International and Europe at Cardiff University, Wales.