The Turing Scheme Returns Britain to Aspirational Education | Angus Gillan

Before the world was housebound and we were able to explore the earth, students were annually becoming increasingly globally mobile. Yet, spurred by hubris, or a lack of vision, for the last six decades the UK has failed to use the full potential of education to exert influence. Looking forward, Britain’s capacity to engage on a human level with the rest of the world can now be met, we hope, with the Turing scheme.

By jump starting prestigious study abroad, beyond the remit of Erasmus+, the Government has signalled it understands Britain’s role in the world increasingly depends on creating relationships via soft power. Education has long been a tactic for the UK in this regard. UK institutions have long placed in the upper rankings of league tables and international student often recommend the UK to their peers. There is little doubt that our green isles are welcoming, academically rigorous, and cerebrally stimulating.

Sadly, for too long this has been one side of the coin. Relatively few UK domicile students, only 7.8% in 2016-17, worked, volunteered, or studied abroad as part of their degree. A crying shame given recent data from ed-tech firm Unifrog stating that over a third of UK students actively consider studying overseas. The Turing programme now offers 35,000 students the chance to fulfil this desire. Till recently, even when students venture overseas, European and North American countries have comprised the majority of top 10 destinations and current prestigious scholarships, such as Fulbright, cater to the historically strong Anglo-American academic and diplomatic relationship.

This return to this truly global outlook reflects Britain’s former zealous pursuit of education. In 1950 the UK was a leading member of the Colombo Plan, innovating post-war engagement with Asia, before retreating ‘east of Suez’. Slowly, the UK left regional engagement to Australia and New Zealand, whose propensity for boldness saw them thrive. Our proactive antipodean cousins have stayed the course, to resounding success. Since 2014 Australia has deployed the ‘New Colombo Plan’, sending 10,000 students a year to “40 locations across the Indo-Pacific from South Asia in the west to Mongolia in the north, and the Cook Islands in the east.” Now the UK hopes to outdo that, with a target of 35,000 students. A friend Down Under recently quipped that it was “nothing special” for an Australian to study abroad. The drive to explore and learn was ingrained in the student population. Perhaps we will no longer be gravely letting our students down by failing to create such a similar status quo.

In yester year, the UK was less afraid of marshalling soft power prowess, albeit in a slightly dominant, paternalistic way, the Empire Division of the British Council called upon Commonwealth nations to provide scholarships to British students so Britons could understand different cultures and landscapes and ensure we grew together. This bold idea created genuine opportunities with the Commonwealth Scholarships’ programme. Thankfully the Turing scheme recognises now is the time to go beyond programmes that only include Commonwealth nations, lest we risk low-energy engagement with non-Commonwealth key regional allies such as Vietnam. By reinvesting in human, educational, alliances at a time of growing global tension, Britain can develop human relations while solidifying the liberal world order, through conservation and deepening of current ties. Helping students to hop it and study abroad will be a boon to their lives and to future economies as we rebuild.

It would have been a dereliction of duty for the government not to take this action. Contemporary tension places us at an inflection point. Not a day passes without reference to China and the West. Defence Committee Chair Tobias Ellwood has stated Britain is in a “second Cold War” against China and Russia. Concerns about diplomatic malpractice echo through Sino-British relations, from debates on Huawei to calls for the creation of a Democracy10 alliance, and the reinvigorated support for CANZUK through the Anglo-sphere. Concurrently, this is also at a time when the machinery of government is being shaken. With the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development into the FCDO. In seeking to strategically deploy development, the Government should be applauded for utilising the trends of student movement and power shifts.

While the amount of chatter increases, there is a growing trend of disengagement due to hostility with China which, as former Australian Consul General to Hong Kong Jocelyn Chey recently expressed, leaves nations less informed. Talk is cheap, instead tangible programmes must be deployed. We then meet the challenge of the contemporary setting, grasping the strategic opportunities for UK policy makers, in the domestic policy agenda with ‘Global Britain’ and the international geopolitical setting regarding China.

In our diplomatic core there is appetite for such endeavours. In 2018, working with the British Consulate-General in Melbourne, I had the fortune of working on creating the Aus-UK Young Leaders Network, a cross-sector network to further economic growth via professional development and education which is being rolled out nationally through Australia. Further positive developments are shown in work such as Policy Exchange’s recent paper: A Very British Tilt: Towards a new UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region. Yet, disappointingly, “Priority areas” listed were: Trade and Technology; Diplomacy; Governance and Development; Climate Change and Environmental Protection; and Defence and Security. Yet, no mention of education beyond primary and secondary levels.

Till this moment, Britain has laudably cultivated personal ties amongst a family of nations by bringing future foreign leaders here via the Rhodes and Chevening Scholarships and the British Council’s Future Leaders Connect. In mirror image to these, at such a time where contemporary diplomacy is becoming increasingly fragile, the Turing Scheme thus guarantees international exposure and human connections, which are vital for future leaders.

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