Exchange thrives but UK gets more insular

August 3, 2001

A steady decline in British students' participation in the Socrates Erasmus student exchange programme is causing concern among employers and academics.

Just over 10,000 British students took advantage of the programme in 1999-2000 compared with nearly 12,000 in 1994-95, according to statistics compiled in the UK and Germany.

And the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council predicts the number will fall even more sharply this year to just 9,000 students.

Yet students from other European countries are making ever greater use of the programme to gain international qualifications to help launch their careers.

French students are the most enthusiastic users of the exchange programme, which includes 30 countries. Some 16,825 French students studied abroad with Erasmus in 1999-2000 compared with about 10,000 seven years ago.

Spanish students on the programme increased from 10,841 students in 1996-97 to 16,297 in 1999-2000; German participation has increased to 15,715, while Italian numbers have grown from just under 9,000 students in 1996-97 to nearly 12,500 last year.

France, Germany and Spain, the three countries that send the most students abroad on Erasmus grants, also host fairly equal numbers of incoming students on the scheme.

But in Britain the gap between incoming and outgoing students has widened. It hosted 20,456 Erasmus students in 1999-2000, more than twice as many as it sent out.

Anne Lindsay, senior policy adviser for the Confederation of British Industry, said it was "a real cause for concern" that fewer British students were taking up the opportunity of the exchange programme.

"Having myself spent a year at Passau University in Germany, I see the Erasmus programme as a great opportunity for intellectual and personal development - and a chance to develop the soft skills that employers value. Young people who spend time studying or working in another country develop their communication skills, self-confidence and the ability to use their initiative. As well as improving foreign language skills, they learn how to relate to people from a different culture. These are all qualities that employers are looking for in graduate recruits."

Experts cite many practical reasons for British students' Euro-scepticism when it comes to studying in Europe via Erasmus, the largest student mobility programme. Good graduate employment prospects in Britain over the past few years may have been a disincentive for prolonging studies. Since students have to pay home fees while studying abroad, they may also have been put off by the extra financial burden.

Declining interest in foreign language degrees in Britain and the low level of language skills compared with fellow Europeans could also be a barrier. Data on the destination of UK students on Erasmus exchanges in 1999-2000 mirror statistics on foreign languages taught in British schools.

France was by far the most popular destination, followed by Spain, Germany and Italy.

John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates Erasmus Council, believes there is a larger overriding reason for declining interest in studying in Europe. "It is essentially cultural and motivational. Students, their families and universities in other European countries recognise that if they want to develop their career prospects they need one or two European languages at a good level and experience in other countries. This climate does not exist in Britain."

He said Britain was also not internationalising its curricula in the way that other European countries are, in a drive to improve their own students' opportunities.

"Nobody is looking at the importance to the UK of outward mobility for the development of UK students," Mr Reilly said.

He said much of the debate over the value of the exchange programme in Britain had been hung up on the financial burden to British universities caused by the large imbalance between incoming and outgoing students. Under European regulations, guest Erasmus students still count as home students in their own countries and cannot be charged fees in Britain or counted among a university's student numbers.

Mr Reilly believes this is why UK universities are reluctant to draw up agreements with universities in Central and Eastern European countries, fearing they will receive many more students than they can send there from Britain.

"This is a matter for concern if you consider it important for our business, trade, international relations and politics that a cohort of young people from these countries have experience of the UK. But it is not happening because most of these young people are going to Germany and France."

Siegbert Wuttig, head of the EU council in the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), said British graduates could lose out in the long term by staying at home. "When you want to sell goods to another country you need to know your customer," he said.

In an attempt to attract more British students to study in Germany on the Erasmus programme, the DAAD in London and the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council are planning a marketing campaign involving students who have completed the programme.

They want to redress the imbalance of just 1,583 British students going to Germany with Erasmus last year while 3,922 Germans went to the UK.

The DAAD sponsors intensive German-language courses for about 100 British university students each summer. Dr Wuttig said: "It is not just generosity. Erasmus works on the principle of reciprocity and Britain is destination number one."

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