Study abroad benefits UK peers and institutions

After study abroad, United Kingdom students gain confidence, develop communication skills and seek to share experience with their peers, according to new research from the British Council.

The research concluded that the impact of study abroad is vast, varied and transformative, and that upon their return home students are eager to engage with new people and practices to continue their experience.

“With targeted support, this group of students can explore what they’ve learned and apply it to their lives, not only to improve their social and academic engagement but also to benefit the institution and community,” the report said.

“The return to UK university life is an often overlooked period, and one that is critically important. The international portion of a course doesn’t end when a student returns, and the immediate perceived impact of study abroad can and must be identified and explored whilst the student is still fresh from the experience, with benefits for their UK peers and institution.

“By employing support programmes before and after the study abroad experience, institutions can optimise this pivotal time for positive benefits not only for the individual, but for his or her peers, the institution and the UK as a whole.”

The report, Broadening Horizons 2016: Maximising the impact of study abroad looks at returned UK students and investigates how the overseas study experience has manifested itself in their UK institutional experience, career expectations and contributions to society.

This is the fourth year of the Broadening Horizons series exploring the drivers and barriers relating to study abroad and, the British Council says, reflects a shift in the dialogue from how to incentivise students to go abroad on an individual, institutional and national level to focusing on outcomes once students return to their UK institution, including its impact on internationalisation of university life.

The research examined student motivations and expectations in pursuing study abroad and compared them to experiences and outcomes in areas including future academic plans, career ambitions, engagement with their home institution and social awareness.

The survey found “substantial differences” between the motivations for students to study abroad and the perceived outcomes of the experience: increased confidence and broader networks were not top drivers but were valued products of study abroad.

“These differences in expectations and experience highlight areas in which institutions can better prepare students for their time abroad,” the researchers concluded.

Although the potential of widened career prospects incentivises students to study abroad, the perceived benefits of the experience are far wider than increased employability.

Communication skills, including language, listening and observation skills, were the skills for employability that respondents believed were most positively impacted by study abroad. After returning home students largely believe they are more employable than those who had not studied abroad.

But the study also found that there is a positive relationship between study abroad during higher education and the desire to go overseas again, for academic or professional reasons.

A welcome and largely unexpected result of study abroad is a new self-confidence that may permeate students’ social and academic lives. Returned home students are also more empathetic to international students and are more welcoming and likely to seek out friendships as a result of study abroad, the survey found.

Impact on UK institutions

Students report an enhanced UK institutional experience after study abroad, largely due to increased confidence and therefore engagement with other students and with their coursework, the researchers concluded.

They also appear to have gained skills that will enhance their peers’ UK institutional experience.

“Students agreed that that they have developed numerous skills, both personal and professional, during their time overseas. This suggests that the specific environment of studying abroad necessitates students to adopt a broader range of competencies when compared to UK university life, which may not have the same demands,” the report says.

“Students can utilise this wider set of skills to enhance their and their peers’ UK institutional experience.”

Students stated that new course-specific skills, increased expertise in their field and real-world experience gained abroad positively impacted their UK academic experience upon their return, as did the varying teaching and learning methods they were exposed to overseas.

Returned study abroad students are also a rich resource for the promotion of study abroad to their peers: 91% of respondents were likely to recommend study abroad to other students.

In addition, study abroad can lead to an increased interest and broadened knowledge of global, national, political and student community issues among returned home students, the report found.

More than nine out of 10 students stated that their study abroad experience made them feel more strongly that UK domestic students should welcome and include international students. Further, 86% of UK students empathised more with the issues international students face in the UK, such as homesickness and culture shock, and 80% said they were more likely to seek out friendships with international students after their own overseas experience.

A spokesperson for the British Council told University World News that an example of the type of support that institutions can provide to students is to ensure that students going overseas find a way to acclimatise to the culture and social norms of the country they are going to – and ideally have an opportunity to identify how their own cultural norms inform how they think of others who have different ones.

"While this may be brief and might appear superficial, it will ease their introduction into a different culture. This is as important for destinations where English is widely spoken and the assumption that because people speak the same language they think much the same way is not always true," the spokesperson said.

A mixed methods approach was employed in this research, and data was collected via an online survey and focus groups of UK home students who had studied abroad as part of their higher education course.

The survey was completed by 245 respondents and 14 students participated in the focus groups. The development and administration of the methodology as well as the analysis of the data was completed in cooperation with the National Union of Students.