Leader: Outward bound for glory

With language skills at a premium, less advantaged students must be encouraged to benefit from study abroad

May 24, 2012

It was an unfortunate coincidence that as the Erasmus scheme celebrated its 25th anniversary last week, one of the key planks of European integration - the single currency - was teetering on the brink of disaster.

The crisis in Greece, and how the country's higher education sector fits into this, is considered in our cover feature, which gives one professor's view of a sector that he describes as astonishingly dysfunctional, and quite unfit to support the country in its hour of need.

However, two other stories this week, neither of them front-page fare, also pose questions about the impact of globalisation and the future path of European integration.

The first is the University of Salford's plans to close its Italian department.

The second is the decision by a leading Italian technical university, the Polytechnic University of Milan, to switch most of its degree courses to English from 2014.

Giovanni Azzone, Milan's rector, said that retaining Italian as its principal language would risk marginalising the institution. "Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice," he said.

The decisions highlight the way in which English has continued to consolidate its status as the lingua franca in the age of globalisation, and of higher education in particular.

This clearly has many positives for universities in the English-speaking world. But it may also have contributed to concerns raised repeatedly by the British Academy, among others, about the lack of appetite for language study among UK students. The decisions taken in Salford and Milan are only likely to entrench this problem.

Which brings us back to Erasmus. Last year, around 13,000 UK students participated in the scheme. Many will have had the experience of their lives. They will also have improved their career opportunities at a time when every little really does help.

But in a week when Nick Clegg insisted that social mobility was one of the priorities of the coalition government, it was dispiriting to note that more than half of the Erasmus students came from just 20 universities, most of them in the Russell Group.

There are a host of reasons why this may be the case. Young people who choose to study abroad may be those who had the financial resources to take a gap year, for example, and already know they can survive abroad.

It is surely much harder to risk a year in another country when you are already coming to terms with the culture shock of being the first in your family to enter higher education.

It should also be noted that many new universities in urban areas take the majority of their students from small catchment areas just a few miles from campus, again making it far harder for them to persuade those students to travel hundreds of miles to study abroad.

But that does not mean that they shouldn't try. Much is made of the need to widen participation in higher education, but those efforts often stop once students are through the door.

Encouraging and supporting students from a wider range of backgrounds to study abroad would be good for social mobility, good for universities and good for Europe.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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