Shorter periods abroad could widen student mobility

Shorter periods of studying or working abroad during degree programmes should be offered by universities to close the gap in mobility participation rates between affluent students and their less well-off peers in the United Kingdom.

That’s a key recommendation of a new report, Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility, produced by Universities UK International with support from the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme and the UK Department for Education.

Raegan Hiles, head of outbound mobility programmes at Universities UK International or UUKi, said research for the new study showed many students from under-represented groups were put off study abroad or work placement options because of the length of such trips.

She told University World News: “A lot of these students face barriers, including financial, and many have obligations outside their student experience that need to be catered for. Those with disabilities may need reassurance that the environment they are going to is geared up so they can have the best possible experience.

“Shorter study trips are one way to get around these obstacles – two, four or eight weeks rather than three months or a whole year – could be less disruptive to family arrangements.

“These students also need evidence of what they will get out of it which is why work mobility is such a key part in widening participation.”

20% mobility by 2020 goal

In 2011, the 48 member states of the European Higher Education Area agreed on a collective goal of seeing 20% of European students spending three months or more studying or training abroad as part of their degree by 2020.

But the UK is lagging behind reaching the outward mobility target, with just 6.6% of UK-domiciled, full-time, first-degree undergraduates spending two weeks or more working, studying or volunteering overseas as part of their UK higher education experience in 2014-15, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The recently revised UK Strategy for Outward Student Mobility 2017-2020 aims to double that to 13.2% by 2020.

Germany has shown that the 20% mobility is achievable, with Susanne Schilden, spokesperson for the German Rectors’ Conference, telling University World News: “Germany has already beaten the European goal of students going abroad. The rate is 25% – with 22% going for three months or more. But many players think it should rise to around 50%.”

Sharp variation in participation rates

One element holding back outward student mobility across Europe is the sharp variation in participation rates between different socio-economic groups.

In the UK, for example, students from a ‘higher managerial and professional occupation’ family background are eight times more likely to go abroad while studying than students from the lowest socio-economic classification, according to UUKi.

And it is not just a British problem.

A mobility survey by DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, and DZHW, the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, found a clear link between the international mobility of German students and their parents’ level of education.

The survey, published in Wissenschaft weltoffen 2017, found that 39% of internationally mobile German students had both parents educated to degree level; with the figure dropping to 31% if only one parent had a degree and going down to 28% if neither parent had been to university.

Migration background appeared to have only a minor effect on student-related outward mobility in Germany.

Financial worries were the biggest barrier for German students considering going abroad as part of their studies, according to the DAAD-DZHW survey. Those who described the funding of their living expenses as ‘secure’ were significantly more likely to spend study-related time abroad.

Organisational effort required for student-related visits was also highlighted as an obstacle. Other problems raised by German students were difficulties reconciling the visit with the requirements and demands of the degree programme, a lack of support from the home higher education institution, and losing time on their degree programme.

Flemish-speaking Belgium sets the pace

Across Europe only one education system – the Flemish-speaking community in Belgium – has a national student mobility target that includes a widening participation requirement, according to Eurydice, the European network supporting cooperation in lifelong learning.

The Eurydice 2016 Mobility Scoreboard monitored progress made by European countries in creating a positive environment for learner mobility across five areas: information and guidance, foreign language preparation, portability of grants and loans, support for students from a low socio-economic background, and recognition of learning outcomes.

The Flemish-speaking community of Belgium has set a target for 33% of mobile students to come from under-represented groups by 2020. Belgium defines under-represented students as students who receive a grant, students who have a job, and students with a disability.

Only four other European countries joined the Flemish-speaking Belgians in comprehensive monitoring of participation of students with low socio-economic background in mobility programmes in 2015-16, according to Eurydice.

These were Austria, Germany, Italy and the UK. The same five education systems also provided the greatest financial support to students from low socio-economic backgrounds, with the Flemish community in Belgium setting the pace for mobility support.

Hiles told University World News: “While the UK has its own target for increasing student mobility across the board, it does not currently have a national target for participation by under-represented students.

“Our aim is more to focus on reducing the participation gaps across groups and making sure that mobility is accessible to and accessed by all.

“The make-up of the student body changes year on year, and other policy interventions, in particular in widening participation, may also change priorities for students and universities.”

Toolkit to help UK widen participation

To encourage British universities to do more to widen student participation in outward mobility, Hiles said that a toolkit would be launched in November or December.

This will build on successful initiatives and activities by institutions sending high numbers of students from low socio-economic backgrounds abroad, such as Cardiff, Kingston and Glasgow Caledonian universities and North West Regional College.

Better communications and marketing of student mobility opportunities are seen as crucial, as is ending the perception that going abroad during a degree is the preserve of an elite group of students, Hiles told University World News.

The Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility report recommends that as well as having support from leadership and institutional targets, universities sending high numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds on mobility trips should have:
  • • Academic buy-in with international office staff working closely with colleagues in academic departments to champion mobility.

  • • Outward mobility practitioners working closely with widening participation and disability teams to ensure appropriate support for students on mobility.

  • • Transparency – being very clear with students about what mobility will involve, with pre-departure sessions on areas of concern and telling disadvantaged students what to expect in terms of cost, culture and impact on their degree.

  • • A flexible mix of short and long-term mobility programmes – from field trips and summer volunteering to semester internships and full year study abroad. No one-size-fits-all to widening access to mobility. Traditional outward mobility programmes do not appeal to all students, and some students are unable to leave the UK for extended periods.

  • • Outward mobility activities in access agreements, outcome agreements and widening access and participation plans to help ensure programmes are targeting priority groups for the institution.

  • • Understanding that financing mobility can be particularly challenging for disadvantaged groups. So be upfront about living costs, available grants and other internal and external funding sources.

  • • Offer ring-fenced financial support for students from disadvantaged groups, such as mobility bursaries and travel grants. Where there is competition for funding, focus on establishing the students’ passion to study or work abroad rather than their past academic achievement.

  • • Market extensively through multiple channels and go beyond flyers, posters and email campaigns to include social media campaigns, interactive web portals, ambassador programmes and features in student publications, speakers at events and supporting student blogs and vlogs.
Hiles said UUKi’s earlier report, Gone International: Mobility works, found that the correlation between outward mobility and improved academic and employment outcomes was even more prominent for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

“They earned 6.1% more, and those in work were more likely to be in a graduate job – 80.2% compared to 74.4%. The report also found that black graduates who were mobile were 70% less likely to be unemployed than their non-mobile peers,” she said.

“We know that students who are traditionally less likely to engage with mobility get even more out of it than their more advantaged counterparts and that even two weeks of student mobility can have a life-changing impact on employability skills."

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He currently provides English-language communication support for Norwegian and Czech universities.