Austrian survey highlights benefits of study abroad

The vast majority of students who have taken part in international study abroad programmes underline the importance of this invaluable experience for their personal development as well as for their professional career.

However, to this day, there has not been much substantial and comprehensive research that provides statistical support to the subjective positive evaluation of the effects of international student exchange programmes.

A study conducted at the Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria compared a group of 540 students who had studied abroad with a sample, of roughly the same size, of students who had not left their home university during studies.

The study was commissioned by the government of the province of Upper Austria, which had provided financial support to students taking part in study abroad programmes through a scholarship fund called the Kepler Internationalisation Programme.

In total, over a period of 14 years, the province supported approximately 6,000 students with scholarships to the amount of €4.3 million (US$5.9 million).

The results of this research should come as good news to all supporters of international exchange programmes.

Language skills

Unsurprisingly, a study period abroad hones students’ foreign language skills, in particular with regard to speaking and understanding the foreign language.

It also turns out that graduates who have studied abroad for some time tend to go for jobs later in life that allow them to use these foreign language skills, and they are also more inclined to engage in an international career that takes them out of their home country.

While international professional mobility is not one of the characteristics of Austrian employees who have graduated from university, the study shows that the readiness to work abroad increases substantially for graduates with a study abroad experience – 4.6% versus 17.4%.

Social skills

Another result that speaks in favour of a study abroad experience is that it helps students develop social and intercultural competences. Apart from the degree programme chosen, these extracurricular skills seem to be the decisive factor for finding first employment.

Graduates with an international study experience regard themselves as more patient with other employees. They show more readiness to explain things repeatedly and to ask questions. They tend to look critically upon their own culture and find it easier to earn the trust of people from other cultures while respecting different behaviours and ways of thinking.

These skills seem to pay off – literally – after about six to eight years into graduates’ careers, when their salaries tend to rise considerably above those who have not studied abroad. The turning point tends to occur around year five after graduation, when clear differences start to emerge. By year nine, the difference in salaries may amount to as much as €1,200 a month.

Although graduates with study abroad experience do not get promoted more quickly or more frequently than their local counterparts, they seem to choose different strategies for their professional careers by consciously looking for and getting hired by employers who pay higher salaries.

This applies also to women with study experience abroad, who profit significantly from higher incomes and a greater willingness to engage in international careers than their female counterparts who have not studied abroad.

Finally, the study does away with the common prejudice that a stay abroad prolongs the time of studying at university. Yet the results speak clearly in favour of study abroad periods that exceed one semester.

Particularly when it comes to the enhancement of foreign language skills or the development of interpersonal and intercultural competences, stays of 12 months or more show distinctly stronger positive effects, whereas stays under six months have only a minor or even negligible impact on graduates’ lives and careers.

Joint study programme

In an attempt to enhance the effects of study abroad even further, Johannes Kepler University Linz launched a new joint study programme in international business at masters level in 2005.

It brings together a cohort of approximately 20 to 30 students from three universities, who spend roughly three months at each of the partner universities. Currently, there are two triads: ‘ACT’ (Austria, Canada, Taiwan) and ‘Troika’ (Russia, Austria, Italy).

The programme, which on the Austrian side has been able to earn the support of the Upper Austrian section of the Association of Industrialists, allows students to experience the host cultures as intensely as possible through continuous interaction with their peers from the other cultures during classes and in their spare time.

Their intercultural learning is also fostered by regular interventions from academic staff closely involved in the programme.

The overarching idea of this programme is to develop participants’ intercultural competence and global mindset due to a strong focus on multicultural teamwork as well as interventions that encourage reflection. For this purpose, an innovative teaching approach has been developed focusing on experiential learning and self-reflection.

During a one-on-one final reflective session on the effects of the programme, one Canadian student concluded: “I really learned not to be cocky about what I think I know. You know, when I was younger, I did quite a bit of travelling. So I felt I knew the world a lot, but you really can’t have that attitude when you meet new people.

“You have to be open. You have to listen to what they say – and also beyond that – look at the context of the situation. Look what they are doing and how they are acting because that tells you a lot as well. You know all of that can be transferred to the business world as well. It really will help you to forge relationships with business partners.”

* Dr Evelyne Glaser is director of the Centre for Business Languages and Intercultural Communication at Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria. This is an edited version of a presentation she gave at a conference in January at Regent’s University London.