Taster visits could ‘raise demand for study abroad’

Funding very short taster visits could be an effective way to increase demand for more substantial study or other student experiences abroad, as well as providing a valuable international experience, according to new research.

Since current funding caters better for longer periods of mobility rather than shorter ones, institutions may need to develop alternative funding sources for such visits, the research concluded.

Almost all mobile students surveyed wanted more experiences abroad and reported valuable outcomes for very short and short term mobility programmes.

“Very short mobility periods resulted in similar impacts to longer periods of mobility, suggesting that it is the experience of being abroad rather than the activity undertaken that is critical. Almost all students who had been mobile wanted to experience further mobility,” the research concluded.

“Funding very short visits such as summer schools and ‘taster’ visits could lead to increased participation in longer programmes as they offer similar impact to longer term mobility. Partial funding for mobility periods could have a significant influence on participation.”

Early engagement with students was also key, not just to give students enough time and information to decide whether to go abroad, but to allow them to have as many experiences abroad as possible during their higher education.

Understand impact

The survey into UK-domiciled students’ perspectives on the outcomes of outward mobility as part of a United Kingdom undergraduate degree, was carried out on behalf of the UK Higher Education International Unit and the British Council, under a programme to enhance understanding of the impact of overseas study and work placements on student experience, academic attainment, employment outcomes and personal development.

It was funded under the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility, which aims to increase the proportion of UK-domiciled students participating in UK higher education mobility programmes.

The researchers wanted to find out more about students’ views of the benefits of study or other student experiences abroad and the barriers to participating. They also wanted to discover which factors influence whether students decide to go abroad, with a view to helping universities develop initiatives to raise the number of students gaining international experience.

The survey drew 3,010 responses from UK students, of whom 2,842 were first-degree students. Three-quarters of respondents who provided their nationality were UK-domiciled and they made up the core sample of 1,588 respondents. However, the sample was not random and 73% of respondents were women.

One aim of the study was to establish the types and duration of student mobility programmes. Some 74% of UK respondents referred to a period of study abroad or an academic exchange that was either compulsory with their degree (22%) or optional (52%), while some 20% of respondents were involved in a work placement. Only 2% were involved in volunteering and 4% were involved in a study tour or summer schools.

Some 58% went abroad for a year, 19% for between one semester and a year, 16% for one semester, 3% for six to 12 weeks and 4% for six weeks or less.

The most popular destination countries were, in order, the US, France, Spain, Australia, Canada, Germany and Italy. Just under half went to other European countries, 28% to North America, and 11% to Australia or New Zealand.

Reported benefits

Developing independence and intercultural understanding, together with new social networks and an increased likelihood of working abroad long term were the most commonly reported benefits. Few long-term negative impacts were reported.

Students’ motivation for participating in mobility are “mostly consistent across study abroad, work experience and volunteering”, the study found. The main motivations were a desire for enjoyable, interesting experiences, to broaden their horizons, and to enhance employability and career prospects.

Other commonly reported motivations included developing intercultural awareness, independence and self-confidence, enhance degree outcomes and, for some, improving language skills. The motivations cited were largely consistent whether the mobility period was a few weeks or a full academic year, the study found.

But key factors in deciding whether to go abroad were the availability of funding and total cost of the experience, personal considerations, personal safety and security and the reputation or perceived quality of host and location.

These do not vary greatly in relation to the type of mobility being considered but some do vary in importance according to the duration of the mobility, the study found. Funding is perceived as just as important, or even more so, by many of those considering very short term mobility as compared to those considering longer periods abroad.

Only 7% said their study abroad or placement was fully funded by a scholarship or other external funding, while 35% said they had obtained some external funding. Most (75%) continued to use their student loan funding while abroad and 60% of UK respondents considered that they were either fully (6%) or partly (54%) self-funded.

The study, "Student perspectives on going international", highlighted that higher proportions of short mobility respondents would have been able to travel with partial funding compared to those spending a year abroad. The proportion who could have taken part if half the costs were met by funding varied from 75% for those on the shortest visits to two-thirds of those on a semester and less than half of those spending a whole year abroad.

The research concluded that this offered some insight as to how levels of funding for different durations of mobility might influence participation.

Institutional resources

However, any attempts to increase short-term mobility to encourage students to go on to experience longer stays would need to take account of the additional institutional resources involved.

“Shorter term mobility requires a similar level of resource from the institution in terms of information, advice and guidance [as longer term programmes] and this needs to be taken into consideration when developing shorter term opportunities for students,” the study warned.

It also stressed that academic staff had a crucial role to play in legitimising and promoting outward mobility to students. “Institutions need to engage academic staff further in outward mobility programmes of all types,” the study said.

Credit and recognition also play a part in legitimisation, but interestingly are not cited as a key factor behind students’ decisions to participate in mobility programmes.

Just under 60% of UK respondents reported that their participation in overseas mobility was credit-bearing towards their degree – and 7% said they did not know whether it was or not. Further analysis showed that around a third of mobility that was not credit-bearing academically was recognised by the institution in another way, such as through a certificate, while nearly one in five students going abroad did not receive a credit or any recognition.

However, 78% of those abroad for a semester reported that it was credit-bearing.

Research beyond the survey, carried out among focus groups, threw up some interesting findings on students’ decision-making, including the fact that students who live at home reported that they had less confidence about going overseas. This is significant because it has been reported that increasing numbers of students are living at home to save costs due to the tripling of tuition fees in recent years in England.

Time factor

It also suggested that the different ways in which students were made aware of opportunities to study abroad could be crucial, particularly for students who made the decision after beginning degree study.

“Group participants reported that key factors for them included the type of information provided (eg websites, posters, lectures, seminars) and timing,” the study said. “Given the time required to organise an overseas placement, many participants suggested that the earlier you find out about the opportunities available, the better.”

Some reported finding out about opportunities too late, causing them to miss a deadline or triggering a scramble to put in applications.