Fly the nest or be left behind

'More must be done' to entice UK students to spend time on foreign soil. Matthew Reisz writes

March 29, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Priceless: for many, overseas study is the most valuable part of a degree

The British Academy has called on the government, businesses and universities to do more to encourage degree courses that include a year abroad because of their significant contribution "both to students' individual experience and employability and to...national prosperity".

A joint statement with the University Council of Modern Languages and, Valuing the Year Abroad, noted that less than nine in every thousand of the 3.7 million mobile students in 2009 were British.

It went on to express concern that this might get worse because "changes to university funding may deter UK students from undertaking a year's work or study abroad within their degree". Furthermore, "current financial incentives" tend to "push students (and their universities) to choose European destinations rather than more challenging ones".

All this was also likely to have an impact on efforts to widen access. Just as the discipline of modern languages has the highest proportion of students from independent schools, it stated, "high-achieving white students from well-educated, cosmopolitan families are over-represented among year-abroad students".

This situation could not be separated from "the additional costs which a four-year degree entails", which had only been exacerbated by the new tuition-fees regime.

Yet there was good evidence that a year abroad increased students' "self-awareness and self-confidence" as well as linguistic and intercultural skills. Two-thirds of respondents to a survey by "estimated that their residence abroad was a significant factor in getting their first and subsequent jobs", while 86 per cent considered it to be "the most valuable part of their degree".

Within the European Union's Erasmus educational exchange scheme, the statement added, "the UK has the highest imbalance between incoming and outgoing students".

While this "put a disproportionate burden on UK universities", it also made obvious "just how disadvantaged UK graduates are in what is now a global employment market".

To address these challenges, the statement appealed to the government to "minimise financial disincentives" for students who wish to undertake a year abroad.

It also urged universities to recognise the "competitive employability advantage" conferred on graduates, by including a year abroad in degree programmes; to "moderate, through central funding, the fees charged to students for their year abroad"; and to "make targeted bursaries available to students of modest means".

The statement was launched at a British Academy conference of the same name on March.

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