Labour MPs and unions have criticised the government’s decision to outsource the administration of the Turing student exchange scheme to Capita, saying it risked “profiting off students’ aspirations”.
The Guardian revealed on Wednesday that Capita had been awarded the contract for the £110m Turing scheme after it outbid the British Council, which has been administering the scheme and its predecessor, Erasmus, since 2007.
Matt Western, the shadow universities minister, said: “The Conservatives’ plan to farm out the Turing scheme to the private firm Capita risks selling students short. With the firm’s history of mismanaged contracts, students will clearly fear this government does not have their interests at heart. Since the prime minister broke his promise to keep Erasmus membership, ministers have cut corners, showing a lack of ambition to make study abroad a serious part of global Britain. Ministers must now guard against providers profiting off students’ aspirations.”
The Turing scheme was announced by Boris Johnson in late 2020, after the government broke its earlier pledge for the UK to remain a member of the Erasmus scheme after Brexit. The British Council ran the new scheme from launch, but its involvement will end after the Department for Education (DfE) put the administration out for tender.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Outsourcing the scheme to Capita – which has a shocking record of failure on a range of other government contracts – is a terrible decision from the DfE, which will further diminish the quality of student exchange programmes.
“The British Council has important expertise in the running of student exchanges, and cutting them out of the process in favour of a profit-making private company is shameful.
“The Turing scheme is still finding its feet, and the priority must be delivering quality for students, not a race to the bottom. This continued, ideological outsourcing drive from the Tories is bad for students and bad for ordinary people.”
The news does not come at a good time for the British Council, after it was revealed that nearly 100 of its former staff in Afghanistan remain in hiding, having been refused the right to come to the UK. Most had been employed to teach English language and British culture as part of the council’s operations in Afghanistan.
The council has also been forced to close 20 offices around the world because of budget cuts by the Foreign Office and falling income from language tuition and exams during the Covid pandemic.
Capita is to take over in March 2022. It has said it will be assisted by several educational organisations, including the Confederation of School Trusts, the Sutton Trust and the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).
Joanna Newman, the secretary general of the ACU, said: “Widening access to mobility, particularly through short-term options, has long been a strategic mission of the ACU, and the Turing scheme’s focus on widening participation and social impact resonates strongly with our values.
“The ACU will be supporting with the applications and assessment of mobility projects, drawing on our global networks and building on our extensive expertise in delivering renowned international mobility schemes, including managing the UK government’s Chevening, Commonwealth and Marshall scholarships, and the multilateral Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth scholarships.”