Students from underprivileged backgrounds are less likely to consider studying abroad because of their lack of cultural opportunities while growing up, a recent study suggests.
Research indicates that the way students perceive the costs and benefits of studying abroad is linked to childhood experiences – for instance, whether or not they had an opportunity to learn a foreign language or to go on an exchange programme while at school.
The findings, published in the paper “Why do students from underprivileged families less often intend to study abroad?”, were based on the results of the annual German school-leavers’ survey, which is completed by pupils six months before and after they leave secondary school.
The paper, which was written by Markus Lörz, researcher in the Institute of Sociology at Leibniz University of Hanover, and Nicolai Netz and Heiko Quast, researchers at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), focused on more than 5,800 school-leavers who had already enrolled in higher education or had definite plans to do so in the near future, but who had not started to study abroad.
Mr Netz said that although previous studies have shown that access to student mobility is socially selective, there has been little research into why this is the case. Previous studies have pointed to the structures of universities and how students currently perceive the costs and benefits of studying abroad, he said.
“Our study shows, and I think this is the new thing, that the decision to study abroad reaches back to your social origins, to very early in your youth and your time at school,” he said.
He added that it is “surprising” that the data are “so in line with theory”, given that in recent years there have been several initiatives in Germany and in the European Higher Education Area aimed at addressing inequality in higher education.
“In fact, this was also a goal of the Bologna reforms. The Bologna Process started in 1999, but we still see this strong social selectivity today,” he said.
Although the study focused on German students, Mr Netz said he would “assume” that the results also shed light on disparities in international student mobility in other European countries.
He suggested that one way to address the imbalance would be for policymakers to increase financial support for underprivileged students and provide options for them to study abroad for a short period of time.
However, he admitted “these ad hoc measures are necessarily limited in their impact” and to fully address the issue students must be given more study abroad opportunities and support while still at school.