Universities UK International has launched a three-year campaign to increase the number of United Kingdom students studying, working and volunteering abroad for two or more weeks as part of their studies.
The push, titled ‘Go International: Stand Out’, is an attempt to address the low proportion of UK students studying abroad compared to other countries. Currently just 6.6% of students complete a placement of this kind. The campaign calls for universities to commit to taking concrete action to support the growth of outward mobility at their institution.
Organisers say a key rationale for doing so is that outward student mobility supports academic and employment success, especially for students from disadvantaged groups. It is part of a national strategy to double outward mobility to 13% by 2020.
More than 50 universities have pledged support so far and the drive has been endorsed by Jo Johnson, minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation.
He urged universities and employers to get involved.
He said: “We know that students who have experience of studying, working and volunteering abroad have better educational and employment outcomes. Employers value the skills that students develop through these placements, including language skills and cultural awareness.
“At the same time universities can build partnerships with other institutions around the world, facilitating the exchange of research and teaching.
“That’s why we’re working with the higher education sector to promote outward mobility and the benefits it brings young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
When compared to students who don’t complete a placement, students who go abroad are 9% more likely to gain a 1st or 2:1 degree and 24% less likely to be unemployed. Those in work six months on from graduation are 9% more likely to be in a ‘graduate’ job earning, on average, a 5% wage premium, according to a Universities UK International report, Gone International: Mobility works.
These gains are particularly significant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – but they are the least likely to participate in outward student mobility.
Compared with peers who stay in the UK, graduates from more disadvantaged backgrounds who go abroad earn on average 6.1% more. Outwardly mobile black students are 41% less likely to be unemployed after graduation than their non-mobile black peers.
The UK’s need for the skills developed through outward student mobility has never been higher. In 2017, research by CBI/Pearson found that 39% of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ international cultural awareness and 47% were dissatisfied with graduates’ language skills.
Seven out of 10 small and medium-sized enterprises believe future executives will need foreign language skills and international experience, according to the British Academy Born Global project.
UK students lagging behind
However, UK students are lagging behind their international counterparts when it comes to international experience – 15% of students in the United States, 19% of Australian students and 25% of German students currently experience an international placement as part of their studies.
All these countries are looking to increase mobility still further – for example, Germany is aiming for 50% by 2020 and the US is aiming for 20% by the same year.
Barriers to UK students’ mobility include cost, fear of isolation and interruption to friendships.
The Go International: Stand Out campaign will be developing resources to help universities promote mobility to their students and make the case for mobility to their governing bodies. It will also be building networks of mobility champions including academics and alumni; producing research to provide an evidence base and address data gaps; and advocating for outward student mobility with governments in the UK and overseas.
Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “We’re asking all UK universities, large and small, to commit to increasing the number of students who have the opportunity to study, work or volunteer abroad as part of their studies.”
She said such opportunities offered a win-win situation. “It’s great for students who grow in confidence and cultural understanding. It’s good for universities as students with an expanded, global mindset help internationalise home campuses – and mobility establishes and embeds international links across university activities. Plus, it’s a boon for employers as they look to build globally skilled and engaged workforces.”
Professor Colin Riordan, president and vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said that outward student mobility is integral to universities’ missions. He said Cardiff is committed to an inclusive approach to developing placements abroad and has created bursaries and other support structures to ensure that their programmes are accessible to all.
Ministers from the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales lent their support to the campaign.
The Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said: “The opportunity to work and study overseas is incredibly valuable. It allows students to learn about other cultures, languages and world views and to test themselves in a new environment.
“We are pleased to work with our universities and colleges to make this kind of life-changing experience available to students, regardless of their background.”
Kirsty Williams, cabinet secretary for education, Welsh Government, said her administration is committed to working with universities and businesses to support students, from all backgrounds, to gain international experience as part of their studies.
In addition, Andrew McCormick, permanent secretary, Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland, said his department would ensure that every student has the opportunity to undertake an international mobility programme, whether through government-funded programmes or those provided by individual institutions.
In the UK students undertake study abroad activities mostly in European Union countries (68%). The most popular destinations are France (23.8%), Spain (16.5%), the US (9.8%), Germany (9.3%), Italy (4.9%), Australia (3.9%), Canada (3.7%), the Netherlands (2%), China (2%) and Russia (1.8%), according to 2013-14 figures.
However, 2014-15 figures indicate that for the UK graduating cohort 55% of international placements were organised by the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme and whether the UK continues participation in that post Brexit, and if so on what terms, has yet to be agreed. Only 37% of international placements were university-led schemes, bilateral exchange partnerships established, administered and delivered by UK universities.