Shorter student mobility ‘widens participation’ – Study

Shorter study mobility programmes tend to be more structured and focused than traditional semesters or years abroad and are less disruptive and should enable more students with commitments at home to take advantage of global opportunities, a study from Universities UK International (UUKi) has found.

The findings were released on 24 June in a new report from UUKi titled Short-Term Mobility, Long-Term Impact, which looked specifically at international experiences of less than four weeks.

The project surveyed 749 students from 34 universities in the United Kingdom between September and December 2020 and also ran 17 student focus groups involving 86 students between November 2020 and February 2021 to understand more about students’ and universities’ experiences of such programmes.

It found that international experiences of less than four weeks had a significant personal and professional impact on participants and helped break down barriers to international experiences.

Timely for Turing programme

Publication of the report is timely as the UK government is working hard to sell what it sees as the advantages of its replacement Turing outward mobility programme over the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme 2021-27, which the United Kingdom decided to opt out of as part of its Brexit deal.

In a foreword to the report, former UK universities minister and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, Chris Skidmore, said: “Study placements do not have to be lengthy to provide these moments of inspiration that after all can have an impact of a lifetime.”

He stressed that quite apart from the employability benefits often associated with international experiences, students reported increased confidence and understanding of other cultures and a greater interest in global affairs – aspects that will be more important than ever for graduates “as we come to know more about what a ‘Global Britain’ will look like”.

Skidmore added: “The new Turing Scheme set up by the UK government recognises the positive benefits of shorter periods of mobility, in particular for students from disadvantaged or under-represented backgrounds, and it’s clear from this report that short-term mobility is inclusive as well as being beneficial to all students.”

Case studies

The UUKi report features a number of case studies looking at the value of short-term student mobility. Among these is the participation of 108 Nottingham Trent University (NTU) students and 12 academics in a European Creative and SMART Cities Challenge with Karlsruhe in Germany and Timisoara in Romania in April 2019.

Stephen Williams, director of NTU Global, told University World News: “Over half the students were from widening participation backgrounds and after learning about Nottingham’s SMART and creative assets, they travelled across Europe by train for an eight-day tour, visiting at least one SMART creative city in mainland Europe on the way to either Karlsruhe or Timisoara, to find out more about specific initiatives to support creativity and innovation.”

Among those taking part was Katherine Fagg, Nottingham Trent Students’ Union (NTSU) incoming vice-president (education), who went on to do another short-term service learning programme at CETYS Universidad in Mexico.

She said: “Both short mobility projects have played an invaluable role in my appointment of VP education at NTSU.

“Without these experiences, I would not have developed the drive and confidence to go for such a new and exciting challenge, or met the ambitious students who inspire and encourage me to believe in myself and aim high.

“These opportunities opened a world of possibility for me, especially coming from a disadvantaged background and being the first in my family to go to university. I am forever grateful and hope I can promote and develop similar experiences in my new role.”

Dr Vicky Lewis, a consultant advising higher education institutions on international strategy development, has been investigating whether UK universities’ global rhetoric matches reality, as University World News reported in January. She said interviewees for her research praised the aims of the Turing scheme in widening international experiences to more students but stressed that barriers were more than just financial.

“Some suggested even shorter initial visits than the Turing scheme allows, but they acknowledged that the inclusivity benefits of short-term visits would need to be weighed up against their relatively higher environmental impact,” Lewis told University World News.

Mobility in the curricula

Lewis said a session at the recent British Council Going Global conference on more sustainable and inclusive student mobility emphasised that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to participate in activities outside the curriculum.

“It is important to design curricula so that short-term mobility is fully integrated in the programme, rather than an add-on. Today’s students also have a greater interest in mobility for work placements and experience, so internships and academically linked volunteering tend to appeal.

“In my view short-term mobility is often a gateway to longer-term mobility, sowing the seeds of learning about new cultures, especially among those who see a longer period abroad as a step too far at the current time.”

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of UK-based consultancy, Education Insight, told University World News that the UUKi survey identifies cost, loss of income, fear of the unknown, loneliness and isolation among the main barriers to participation.

Cohort mobility

Ilieva said: “Experiences of other countries with national mobility funding schemes show that ‘cohort mobility’, such as Australia’s New Colombo Plan [NCP], has successfully mobilised participation in study abroad across a diverse student population.

“A distinctive feature of the NCP short-term study programmes and internships is that they fund cohorts of students on the same university course to undertake a project or work-based learning overseas. Their course tutor usually escorts the students. This approach appears to address the main barriers to study abroad.”

Professor Alexandra Hughes, deputy vice-chancellor (global engagement and employability) at the University of Westminster, and chair of the UUKi project steering group on short-term mobility, said: “We already know that international experiences do not and should not look the same for all students. This project tells us that shorter programmes which fit around existing commitments allow students who may not otherwise have considered a period abroad to take one up.

“It also tells us that taking up such global opportunities can lead to employment, greater confidence and increased international engagement.

“These benefits can be particularly felt by under-represented groups in traditional mobility programmes, for whom longer periods of mobility can be more challenging – such as those from lower-income households and those with caring responsibilities.”

Vivienne Stern, director of UUKi, said: “Our aim is for universities to learn from the findings and best practice presented in the report and make the most of the benefits presented by short-term mobility to ensure that any student, no matter their background, can participate in an international experience.

“To support this aim, we encourage the UK government to consider these findings, and the impact demonstrated, in their review of the UK’s Turing Scheme.”

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.