Why learning abroad matters

The Australian international education sector is having an important conversation around reframing learning abroad to meet the demands of the 21st century.

For the past decade, it has been a preconception from Australian universities that Australian students don’t travel. This has been used as the explanation for low participation rates in exchange programmes. Data from 10 years ago reports that around 7,200 Australian students participated in outbound learning abroad programmes.

In recent years, this picture has changed dramatically. In 2013, almost 30,000 Australian students studied overseas as part of their degree. For undergraduate students, this equates to a participation rate of 14.8%, a figure comparable to the US participation rate.

For Australian universities, this is a great achievement in the development of comprehensive internationalisation strategies that have been supported by federal, state and local governments.

Most importantly, Australian students have embraced new opportunities to spend time overseas as part of their higher education programme. With perhaps greater insight than their institutions of higher learning, students from Australian universities understand the importance of learning abroad for their professional and personal development.


While many institutions still treat learning abroad as a transactional exchange of academic credit, for students, learning abroad presents an opportunity to explore new countries and cultures, expand their networks and gain a direct understanding of some of the issues they have explored in their home classrooms.

Learning abroad has also become an important step in the development of their future professional lives.

In an attempt to better understand why learning abroad matters for our students, 11 Australian universities recently participated in a study of the early career benefits of learning abroad programmes. Here are the major outcomes of that study.
  • • Learning abroad promotes employability skills. Across a broad range of disciplines, former participants reported that key benefits of learning abroad included the development of communication skills, teamwork skills, problem-solving skills and self-management skills. These skills align with four of the eight employability skills as defined by the Australian government’s Employability Skills Framework.

  • • Additionally, respondents reported the development of citizenship skills, an attribute often included in university graduate attribute statements. This finding indicates that learning abroad may make a greater contribution to graduate outcomes than is currently recognised at most universities.

  • • Learning abroad fosters greater career direction. Participants in the study indicated that increased motivation and passion for their chosen career direction was one of the most important benefits developed through learning abroad. One interpretation of this could be that learning abroad promotes a focus on international career development. It may also indicate that learning abroad provides a space for students to experiment with opportunities not available at home.
Career management

The importance of this finding relates to research indicating that career management skills are not sufficiently addressed at most Australian universities, and the uncertainty related to career outcomes may affect university attrition rates and employment outcomes.

If learning abroad is a tool for the development of stronger career direction in students, it could be more purposefully explored from a career development perspective. This focus has been pioneered through work on career integration and study abroad at the University of Minnesota, USA.

Learning abroad facilitates the development of international career capital. While some students are content with participation in one international study experience, a small segment of Australian students are utilising learning abroad to purposefully accumulate international skills and knowledge.

These students are building their international career capital and shaping their profile to work in an international role in the future.

Patterns of international mobility were a unique finding of this study. Twenty-one percent of respondents had studied abroad before commencing university; 24% of participants undertook multiple learning abroad experiences; and 17% of participants worked abroad at the time of the study (three to five years after graduation).

This data suggests that more research is needed to better understand this group of learning abroad ‘collectors’.

Today’s internationally mobile students are sophisticated consumers of education and opportunities that will enable them to build meaningful professional and personal lives. While not all students want to participate in learning abroad programmes, a subset of students are actively seeking out opportunities to extend their horizons through their education pathways.

Even graduates who choose to work in a local context report strong career benefits that they attribute to their learning abroad programme, such as employability skills and personal developmental attributes.

Learning abroad matters for our students. This research indicates that learning abroad programmes play a more purposeful role in the development of graduate outcomes than is currently recognised by many institutions.

Learning abroad is certainly more than credit transfer for our students – it is the opportunity to develop career-relevant skills and explore possible futures.

Davina Potts is the director of global engagement at Australian National University and this study was undertaken as part of her doctoral dissertation research. It was presented at the International Education Association of Australia, or IEAA, Outbound Mobility Forum in Sydney in April 2015.