It’s a long-celebrated fact that spending time abroad during undergraduate studies can be hugely beneficial to individuals and universities alike. Study-abroad schemes can improve language skills, boost confidence levels and generally help to make students more employable than if they were to stay at home for the duration of their degree.
According to the latest report by Universities UK’s international wing, UUK International, students who spend two weeks or more overseas as part of schemes such as the European Union’s Erasmus+ are 9 per cent more likely to gain a first-class or a 2:1 degree, and 24 per cent less likely to be unemployed straight out of university, than those who don’t. Compared with peers who stay in the UK, graduates from more disadvantaged backgrounds who have studied abroad earn on average 6.1 per cent more.
A large proportion of institutions already offer such programmes, and on the surface such opportunities seem too enticing to turn down. And yet even at a time when more of us enjoy international travel than ever before (if Instagram is anything to go by), just 6.6 per cent of all students currently take part.
By comparison, some 15 per cent of US students, 19 per cent of Australians, and 25 per cent of German students take part in an international placement as part of their degree studies.
A new campaign by UUKi, “Go International: Stand Out”, aims to double the UK figure to 13 per cent by 2020. It comes at a time of much concern over the future of the UK’s participation with Erasmus+, and it’s clear that universities are on side, with 54 institutions having signed up to the campaign even before its official launch.
UUKi director Vivienne Stern hopes for 100 per cent involvement across the UK, and her team are on track to achieve that goal. University vice-chancellors and government ministers alike have been quick to offer endorsement, armed with the knowledge that improving outward student mobility will not only benefit individuals but is also a proven advantage for the wider economy and social standing of the UK.
With Brexit looming and British universities attempting to fight off perceptions of the UK as a closed, inward-facing nation, very few need convincing that such programmes merit support. But positive words are one thing; how well these universities will succeed in steering students through a study-abroad placement is less clear.
For one thing, of the 6.6 per cent of UK students who do study, work or volunteer overseas, more than half are supported by Erasmus programmes – the future of which is uncertain post-Brexit.
“We are in a crunch point with Erasmus,” Stern said at the launch of the campaign. “We don’t know if students are going to be able to participate in the last 19 months of the programme; we’ve been nagging the UK government to find what is going to happen.”
Analysis by the British Council suggests that UK students do not study overseas because in the past they simply have not had to. Its annual report looking at the perceived barriers and changing attitudes to international study notes that while school-leavers in other countries flock to the UK for its solid reputation for higher education, British students have enjoyed some of the best opportunities for studying here on their doorstep.
Zainab Malik, head of research, education intelligence at the British Council, said: “Currently, the benefits and advantages of the experience of study abroad may not be perceived by many UK students as enough to outweigh the financial costs, time commitment and time away from the UK.
“There is evidence, however, that if today’s students were more fully informed of the benefits of study abroad, notably its positive relationship with career prospects, interest in overseas study would increase.”
When I was a student, my decision not to spend time on a study-abroad placement suited my circumstances for a number of reasons. One issue was cost – even after a number of introductory meetings it was unclear how much I’d need to save, let alone how to do it – but ultimately, I decided that three years was not really such a long time. My undergraduate years felt precious, and I wanted to spend them in the new city I’d only just moved to, with new friendships I had only just made.
To make study-abroad schemes a commonplace undertaking in undergraduate years and not just a badge of honour for institutions to add to their prospectuses, universities need to be armed with the funds and foolproof plans already in place, so that students are not intimidated by the prospect of change.
What’s more, universities need to buy into and promote the idea that a degree must now be more than merely an academic achievement – that UK students graduating after Brexit need to enter the working world with international awareness and connections and globally applicable skills.
If nothing else, “Go International: Stand Out” will surely force universities to consider how they are working to ensure that graduates are really prepared for the modern world.