Britain’s new strategy to get more students abroad

With just one UK student studying abroad for every 15 international students coming the other way, Britain is launching a bold initiative to tackle the imbalance.

Unveiled on the same day as the government’s new international education strategy Global Growth and Prosperity, which focuses on attracting even more of the world’s students to British higher education, it was somewhat overlooked when first announced at the end of July.

However, the Outward Student Mobility Strategy is seen as a major breakthrough for those worried that Great Britain is in danger of losing its global competitiveness because too few of its native population have worked or studied abroad.

Universities and Sciences Minister David Willetts said as much, when announcing the initiative: “Studying abroad offers students the chance to experience new cultures, understand different ways of working, and develop crucial language skills.

“Too few UK students currently go overseas, which is why we are investing in this programme. To compete in the global race the UK must create graduates with a global outlook that makes them more attractive to potential employers and benefits the wider economy.”

UK lagging behind

Britain has long lagged behind its European counterparts in relation to outward student mobility.

Full-time students studying abroad are so few that until recently they were not even properly counted in the UK. As for Europe’s Erasmus programme of study and work placements abroad, the European Commission’s latest figures for 2011-12 show just 13,662 outbound UK students taking part. In comparison, Spain had nearly 40,000 students abroad, while Germany and France both had over 33,000 participating in the Erasmus programme.

The number of British students studying full-time for degrees overseas has long been based on educated guesswork. So one of the first tasks is to agree on a baseline to work from, said Anne-Marie Graham who, on behalf of the UK HE International Unit, is heading up the new drive to get more UK students to study abroad.

“Our initial funding lasts until 2016 and we’re focusing on what we might be able to achieve over the next three years, including percentage increases in outbound students from specific under-represented areas, like health sciences and health care, which we feel could benefit from more international student mobility.

“But we’ll also be looking further ahead to 2020,” said Graham, who understands the benefits of studying abroad after going on two Erasmus exchanges to France and Spain while studying modern languages at Anglia Ruskin University.

Europe’s 20% mobility goal by 2020

The year 2020 is a key date on the European Commission’s student mobility calendar. Last year’s Bologna process ministerial conference in Bucharest reaffirmed the goal of one in five European students spending at least three months working or studying in another country by 2020.

The 20% target is a Europe-wide ambition rather than a country specific one, but all member states are expected to do their best to move towards it. The UK has a long way to go, with less than 2% of British students believed to have any experience studying or working abroad.

The government is providing core funding for the new Outward Student Strategy, amounting to £150,000 (US$240,000) for each of the first three years, and efforts are under way to find sustainable funding models to carry the work forward to the all-important 2020.

A policy officer has been appointed to support Anne-Marie Graham, but the team running the project is just two-and-a-half people strong, and they are focusing on adding value to work already being carried out in the higher education sector to encourage student mobility.

Scotland Goes Global

Scotland has already launched a campaign, with students taking a leading role, that could be adopted by the other nations of the United Kingdom: England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Stacey Devine, NUS Scotland Women's Officer, said: “We see a direct link between study abroad and employability and welcome this new national initiative. It supports our cross-sector ‘Scotland Goes Global’ project, funded by the Scottish government, to help address the low numbers of Scottish students studying abroad.

“Our project brings schools, employers and the tertiary education sector together for the first time to discuss the benefits of study abroad and has encouraged colleges and universities to create more accessible and better study abroad opportunities.”

Anne-Marie Graham said the national strategy, to be officially launched this autumn, wants to target young people before they reach higher education and is looking at partnerships with others, such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s ‘Routes into Languages’, which sees universities working with schools and colleges in England and Wales to help promote outward mobility.

Not just for linguists

One barrier to overcome is the perception that Erasmus and studying abroad is just for foreign-language students. “Up to now a large percentage studying abroad have been modern language students,” Graham told University World News.

“In 2012, the figure was 6,299 out of the 13,662 UK Erasmus students going abroad, and we know from our initial research that language competences, or rather confidence, can put UK students off going to a non-English-speaking country. But studying abroad is not just for linguists,” she said.

“Even where the course is taught wholly in English, UK exchange students may fear they will miss out on social life by not speaking the local language.

“It can happen, but we’ll be working with student bodies like the Erasmus Student Network and Third Year Abroad to explain that you don’t need to be proficient in the country’s language to benefit from the cultural experience, and it will certainly increase your international outlook and employability by studying or working abroad – even for three or six months.”

Early priorities

Early priorities for the outward mobility strategy include:
  • • Finding out where the need is greatest and mapping the types of mobility already taking place.
  • • Exploring the impact of mobility on employability.
  • • Developing an online hub to provide, in one location, the different information that students need about studying abroad – the hub is due to go live in November.
  • • Creating a practical toolkit for university staff about mobility that takes account of the very diverse nature of UK higher education and helps staff overcome barriers to mobility.
  • • Discovering more about the barriers that may deter UK students from gaining international experience.
  • • Learning from countries like Germany, Australia and the US, which already have successful outward mobility strategies.
“The main objective is to raise awareness of the opportunities that are out there and promote the benefits of outward mobility to students, academics, parents and other influencers”, said Graham.

“We will also be looking at what deterrents need to be tackled at an academic level, such as ensuring study abroad periods are credit-bearing and recognised by degree awarding bodies. There’s still a lot of sorting out between different academic structures in different countries.”

Dr Joanna Newman, director of the UK HE International Unit, said: “Encouraging a more strategic and joined up approach across the UK to study abroad will result in more of our students and staff experiencing the transformative effect of living and learning in another country.

“This experience changes their own perspectives and enhances job prospects, but also enriches institutions, employers and the broader society by equipping students with increased understanding and experience of studying and working in a global environment.”

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his own website.