Opinion | University language students are the latest casualties of this government’s ‘chumocracy’


Lois Ryan, English and Philosophy, Second Year

The reported outsourcing of the ‘Turing’ scheme is the latest Tory victory in their quest to put profit over people. But just how worried should students be about the privatisation of the foreign exchange programme?

As it turns out, pretty worried.

The Turing scheme replaces the Erasmus programme, which the UK government sacrificed during Brexit negotiations. Until Brexit, Erasmus funded around 18,000 UK university students per year (mostly modern language students) to study abroad in another European country.

Jo Grady, General Gecretary of the University and College Union, opposes Turing’s privatisation based on Capita’s ‘Shocking record of failure’ with other government contracts.

Capita’s record includes the ‘Terrible failure’ of working with the army, as well as risking a ‘Potential to seriously harm patients’ in a £330 million contract with the NHS, and a ‘Troubled’ recent £27 million contract with Manchester Police. Grady compared this to the British Council’s history of ‘important expertise in the running of student exchanges’, successfully running Erasmus, Erasmus Plus and now the Turing scheme since 2007.

Capita, then, appears to be just the latest example of chumocracy

Why, then, in July did the government award the contract to infamous outsourcing company Capita, who are said to have bid well-below the £6 million valuation?

The past year has shown you’re about as likely to find smoke without a fire as you are to find Tory privatisation without corruption. The government’s recent record of ‘chumocracy’ includes handing out over £1 billion worth of contracts to Tory friends and donors since the start of the pandemic.

The National Audit Office reports on this period that ‘Companies with a political referral were 10 times more likely to end up winning a government contract than those without’ - in other words, the governmental version of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Capita’s board of directors includes Lucy Jeanne Neville-Rolfe, who manages the company and has also sat on the board as an independent non-executive director since 2017. It is painfully unsurprising that Neville-Rolfe is an influential Tory Peer as well as a former Tory Minister.

Capita, then, appears to be just the latest example of chumocracy - Johnson’s government dishing out contracts to the unscrutinized and the incompetent. But it is how Capita plans on spending the scheme’s £110 million (including administration costs) which is the main concern.

The future of languages in the UK looks bleak

The new Turing website pays almost no attention to improving language skills (the philosophy underpinning Erasmus), instead it focuses on relationships with Anglophone countries beyond Europe as part of the government’s post-Brexit tag line of ‘Global Britain’.

Given this, alongside the government’s desperate promises to strengthen trade with Anglophone countries, Australia and the US, it‘s hardly a big leap to suggest that trade relations and not languages - or the students learning them - might be the focus of the government’s vision here.

The new Turing website pays almost no attention to improving language skills

Academics fear that due to European funding and partnerships no longer being guaranteed as a result of our departure from Erasmus, language students in the UK will only receive enough funding for one term abroad instead of a year, reducing language degrees in the UK from four years to three years.

Watt, a French expert at the University of Exeter, suggests that to accommodate for this slash to language students’ learning hours, ‘Students would be strongly encouraged to spend time abroad in their vacations’, but should ‘Only spend [their] vacation studying abroad if [they] can afford it’. So, it seems that studying languages is becoming increasingly inaccessible to students from lower-income backgrounds.

Given the background of the sharp decline in learning modern languages in the UK, the future of languages in the UK looks bleak.

Since 2010, at least nine university modern language departments in the country have closed, which goes hand in hand with a 2-in-5 reduction in the number of students accepting offers for modern language courses. Additional financial barriers to lower-income students’ access to study languages will only dilute these figures even further.

Nicola Sturgeon describes the UK’s departure from Erasmus as ‘cultural vandalism’

Philosopher Julian Baggini writes that ‘Erasmus was a symbol of the erosion of walls, the freer movement…of people and ideas’, which in essence is the opposite of the post-Brexit scheme - a symbol of how ‘The walls are going up again’.

The irony of a scheme which moves us further away from Europe and her languages being named after a man whose life’s work actually helped both Union and dialect survive, comes across as particularly callous from the UK government.

But this double-speak comes as no surprise from a government who shout ‘global Britain’, and turn their backs to the world, who fight the climate crisis by making flights cheaper; who label peaceful protestors as ‘violent criminals’ and the riot police who beat them as ‘heroes’.

As language learning in the UK dwindles, Europe’s voice is fading - and in its place, Boris Johnson’s shouts louder. Nicola Sturgeon describes the UK’s departure from Erasmus as ‘cultural vandalism’, but it’s worse than that - it’s a drop in the tide of democratic erosion that’s threatening UK shores right now.

As current students, it is our moral obligation to speak up for future students, as the education which we are privileged with becomes increasingly inaccessible.

Featured image: Unsplash/Sanga Rima Roman Selia

What do you think of the government's decision to outsource the Erasmus scheme? Let us know @EpigramOpinion


Lois Ryan

Second year English and Philosophy