Stay-at-home UK students still the 'worst in Europe' for study abroad

Lack of language skills and worry about academic inflexibility deter venturers, writes Hannah Fearn

February 10, 2011

Efforts to encourage more UK students to study abroad appear to be failing, with the country retaining the worst outbound-inbound student ratio in Europe.

According to data from the Academic Cooperation Association, the UK still sends just one student abroad for every 20 who come to the UK to study for a degree.

Bernd Wächter, director of the ACA, told a conference held last week by the UK HE Europe Unit that the next worst performers were Belgium and Sweden with a 1:3 ratio. At the other end of the scale, Slovakia sends out 13 students for every one coming in, delegates heard at the conference in London.

European countries have committed to a target of at least 20 per cent of their students spending a period studying or training abroad by 2020.

However, Europe as a whole remains a net importer of students, and less than 7 per cent of all European programmes are taught in English, further discouraging UK students who cannot speak another language.

A study carried out by the Europe Unit found that 74 per cent of UK universities now have staff in place to encourage student mobility and address the imbalance.

Simon Sweeney, lecturer in international political economy and business at the University of York and a member of the UK Bologna Experts Committee, said the problem was partly one of "academic inflexibility", with academics and students both worrying that time spent abroad may affect their overall degree result.

The UK HE Europe Unit research confirmed that credit recognition internationally had not improved in recent years, with more than half of students experiencing some problems concerning the understanding of their qualifications when they moved between countries.

"There is a perception that (this) hasn't gone far enough or quickly enough," said Callista Thillou, interim head of the UK HE International and Europe unit.

Mr Sweeney said the fear of language barriers also remained a key problem.

"The lack of UK student engagement in exchange opportunities is the assumption on the part of our students that to engage requires fluency in a foreign language. The sector as a whole under-regards the importance of languages," he said.

Speaking at the conference, David Willetts, the universities minister, said students might be encouraged to study abroad if they understood it would make them more employable. "We know that it meets a real gap in the market and (addresses) a frustration that employers have," he said.

Mr Willetts also attempted to calm the fears expressed by universities about proposed changes to the student visa system, which could dramatically cut the number of foreign students eligible to study in the UK, particularly in below-degree level "feeder" courses.

"Mainstream universities with mainstream students wishing to come and study here are not the target that we have in our sights," Mr Willetts said.

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