Brexit must not jeopardize outward student mobility

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Students who work, study or volunteer abroad during their degree are more likely to earn a top tier degree and are less likely to be unemployed after graduation than those who don’t. ‘Mobile’ students in employment after they graduate are more likely to be in a graduate level job and earn, on average, 5% more than their non-mobile peers.

These are just some of the findings of new research into outward student mobility which Universities UK International released last week: Gone International: mobility works.

The report, which looks at the UK’s 2014–15 graduating cohort, is the third in a series of consecutive cohort studies that help identify which of the UK’s students are going abroad, where they travel, and how they fare six months after graduation. In line with findings in the previous studies, we find a positive correlation between mobility and improved academic and employment outcomes for graduates.

The findings are also positive about the benefits for underrepresented groups: students who are less likely to travel appear to gain the most from doing so. For example, black graduates who went abroad during their studies were 70% less likely to be unemployed than their non-mobile peers six months after graduation. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who went abroad and were employed after graduation earned, on average, 6.1% more than those who had stayed in the UK.

Erasmus+: Not a luxury, but a necessity

Over the past few years, momentum has built behind this ‘outward student mobility’ as a key feature of greater internationalisation and global reach. Since the launch of the national strategy for outward mobility in 2013, universities have been increasingly ambitious in supporting outward student mobility. We have seen them write mobility into their internationalisation strategies and set bold targets. In the run up to the EU Referendum our collective work to deliver the national strategy gained new profile as students protested to defend their right to study abroad.

However, the vote to leave the EU risks halting all the progress we have made by putting the UK’s continued access to the EU’s Erasmus+ programme in jeopardy. Erasmus+, which turns 30 this year, is currently the single largest source of funding for UK student and staff mobility. It has played a vital role in supporting the UK university sector to increase the number of students benefitting from international experiences. Over half of trips undertaken by the UK’s 2014–15 graduating cohort were via the Erasmus programme.

Erasmus+ supports students from lower socio-economic backgrounds through the provision of top-up grants. It also funds higher education reform and capacity-building projects, fosters institutional cooperation, and develops strategic partnerships that are quality assured and protected by the Erasmus University Charter. It has a strong and recognisable brand, and an unparalleled network of hundreds of thousands of alumni from the UK alone.

Alumni of student mobility programmes like Erasmus+ have had the opportunity to benefit from a potentially life-changing experience. Our research shows how important mobility can be to student success, as well as to closing attainment gaps. Moreover, improved outcomes hold even when we control for academic attainment. Of students with a first or upper second class degree, we found that mobile students were still more likely to be in graduate jobs, and earn higher average salaries, than non-mobile students. Of students from more disadvantaged backgrounds who gained a first-class or upper second-class degree, we found that unemployment rates among mobile students were still lower than those for non-mobile students.

Beyond degree and employment metrics, mobility builds critical global skills such as intercultural awareness and language skills. At the institutional and societal level, the mobility of students internationalises campuses, and fosters global networks. These external benefits also help enhance the UK’s soft power and support the UK’s trading and diplomatic relationships longer-term.

Where next for mobility?

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, the UK government has indicated a need for the country to become even more global and internationalist in action and spirit. Student mobility should form a key part of this agenda. Mobility helps graduates become more globally engaged, open-minded, and culturally aware and helps us reassure the rest of the world that we still hold these values dear.

At a time when the UK’s place in mobility schemes is uncertain, Universities UK is calling for continued engagement in Erasmus+ and for this to be confirmed in the UK government’s negotiations with the EU. The benefits that mobility can provide students – and universities’ employability offers – are clear. We must continue to enable future generations of students to access these valuable mobility opportunities and ensure that there remains sufficient funding for them to do so.

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