The proportion of students experiencing outward mobility has risen sharply, according to new research by Universities UK. But nearly one in two of those experiences were supported by the European Union’s Erasmus+ staff and student exchange programme from which the United Kingdom may be excluded after Brexit.
The report found that there was been a 33% rise in the share of the student population who went abroad between 2013-14 and 2014-15, according to responses to successive Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education or DLHE surveys.
The report, Gone International: Mobility works, says that since the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility was launched in 2013, UK universities have continued to enthusiastically embrace the outward mobility agenda, with many building it into their internationalisation strategies.
The report said 16,165 UK-domiciled graduates responding to the 2014-15 DLHE survey were reported as mobile. This represents 7.2% of all respondents to the survey, an increase from 5.4% in the 2013-14 graduating cohort.
But much of the growth in mobility has been due to increased levels of participation in the EU’s mobility programme, in which UK participation has increased by more than 50% since 2007-8 and reached record levels in 2013-14, the report says.
In 2014-15, Erasmus+ supported 46% of students who went abroad for one week or more.
Rosalind Lowe, a policy researcher for Universities UK, in an analysis on the Universities UK website, said this means the UK’s vote to leave the EU has implications for mobility within Europe and for the overall level of mobility of UK students.
“Universities UK is asking the government to prioritise continued access to Erasmus+ in the Brexit negotiations,” she said.
Speaking to University World News, Raegan Hiles, head of outbound mobility programmes, confirmed that Universities UK is looking into alternative schemes as a contingency plan.
She said: “The availability of this scheme [Erasmus+] does enable universities to be able to offer mobility to students. And the brand name makes them more familiar to students. So to be able to maintain something like that is very important to us.
“We are in discussions with members about alternative schemes. The example of Switzerland is one we are looking at, as it does still manage to engage. But the structures that are there now are the ones we would like to stay with.”
Of the top five destination countries for mobile students in 2014-15, four were EU countries: France (23.8%), Spain (16.5%), United States (9.8%), Germany (9.3%) and Italy (4.9%), the report found.
Uncertainty over membership
The uncertainty over membership of Erasmus+ will not help the UK keep up with the amibitous targets being set by countries all over the world to ensure that more students have the opportunity to spend time abroad as part of their degree.
Germany, according to Lowe, wants 50% of students to spend time abroad by 2020, and the US and France have both committed to doubling the number of students going abroad over the next few years.
“In 2014-15, around 1 in 15 UK undergraduate students went abroad as part of their degree,” she said in her analysis. “This represents substantial progress from 1 in 21 students the year before, but the UK still falls far short of the level of participation achieved in other major European and English-speaking countries.”
She said the relatively low participation rates in the UK are in part driven by the under-representation of particular groups of students.
In the sample examined in Gone International: Mobility works, white students were more than twice as likely as black students to go abroad, and students from more advantaged backgrounds were also almost twice as likely as those from more disadvantaged backgrounds to go abroad. The lowest participation rates were among black students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Just 1 in 37 of these students went abroad.
But tackling this problem may be harder if the UK loses membership of Erasmus+, which helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds through the provision of top-up grants.
Improved employment prospects
Gone International: Mobility works, the third annual report, compares the academic attainment and employment outcomes of mobile and non-mobile first-degree undergraduate students who completed their studies at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.
Students are considered 'mobile' if they have at least one period abroad of one week or longer as part of their undergraduate first degree. This period of mobility can be study, work or volunteering.
Hiles said the findings of Gone International show a general tendency for mobility to improve employment prospects, but even more so for minority groups.
“We know that those students who are mobile have higher employment prospects. But when we break that down, we see that graduates from under-represented groups, if they were mobile, tend to have better outcomes afterwards, so they tend to be less unemployed, more likely to earn a better degree, and more likely to be in a graduate job.”
The research found a correlation between outward student mobility and improved academic and employment outcomes:
- 3.7% of graduates who were mobile during their degree were unemployed, compared to 4.9% of their non-mobile peers;
- 80.1% of graduates who were mobile during their degree earned a first class or upper second class degree, compared to 73.6% of their non-mobile peers;
- Among graduates who were mobile during their degree, those in work were more likely to be in a graduate level job (76.4% compared to 69.9%) and earn 5% more than their non-mobile peers.
But the figures are even more favourable for disadvantaged, black and minority ethnic groups who study abroad.
On average, graduates from more disadvantaged backgrounds who were mobile during their degree earned 6.1% more, and those in work were more likely to be in a graduate level job than their non-mobile peers (80.2% compared to 74.7%).
The report found that black graduates who went abroad during their studies were 70% less likely to be unemployed than their non-mobile peers six months after graduation, and mobile Asian graduates were 71% less likely to be unemployed than their non-mobile peers.
However, these groups are also very under-represented in mobility, with black students less than half as mobile as white students and Asian students are only slightly more than half as mobile as white students.
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