Why we must come together to ensure students can study abroad

At Universities UK International’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) on Wednesday delegates were asked to consider whether the UK needs a new international strategy for higher education and research. I believe there are some clear goals and we can band together as a sector to work towards them.

High up on the list is doubling the percentage of UK students going overseas. The frequency with which discussions at IHEF returned to the value of mobility for students underscored its significance in any future strategy.

Students who go abroad are more likely to do better at every key indicator in higher education, from attainment to employment. We also know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and black and minority ethnic groups participate less in mobility programmes and yet see the greatest improvement in outcomes when they do.

Universities UK International research finds that students who go abroad during their studies are more likely to gain a first or two one degree and are less likely to be unemployed than their non-mobile peers. For those in work, graduates who had an international placement while at university are more likely to be in a ‘graduate’ level job and are earning, on average, a 5% wage premium.

Beyond metrics, students who go abroad develop the kind of soft skills and networks that serve them well beyond their university careers, and in their personal and professional lives. Research shows that international placements increase intercultural awareness, self-confidence, tolerance, adaptability, sociability, curiosity and resilience, amongst other things. In the words of mobile students from my own, and other, institutions who have been mobile.

Nicole Benefer, University of Liverpool. Studied at the University of Texas at Dallas, USA told us:

I would never have been confident enough to travel alone if I hadn’t participated in the Study Abroad experience. It pushed my boundaries and increased my independence

Simmone Mclean, University of Northampton Erasmus+ placement in the Netherlands said:

Those six months were the most challenging, enlightening and rewarding months of my life. I feel more confident and self-assured and have become more reflective and open-minded. As a parent I’ve changed as well. Living abroad has given [my daughter]..skills she would have never had before…I will never be the same person again. I’m changed forever, for the better.

Sonny Williams of Kingston University, who studied at California State University, USA said:

I discovered a wealth of information about how I act, some assumptions I had about the rest of the world that were entirely unfounded…I have much more confidence in myself and my ability to manage crises.

Testimonials like these feature prominently in Universities UK International’s new three-year outward student mobility campaign, Go International: Stand Out, which aims to help the sector deliver on the doubling goal. Four months in this campaign already has a groundswell of support, with political endorsements from all four nations, and 74 formal UK university partners.

To join the campaign university leaders, including me, have each made a pledge to ensure more of their students can go abroad, and Universities UK encourages all universities to join this effort.

Galvanised by the campaign more universities are writing mobility into strategies and setting bold and ambitious targets. The new prominence of outward student mobility is reflected in current discussions on international higher education, like those at IHEF. However, future progress in boosting outward student mobility is at risk from a potential loss of Erasmus+, a programme that facilitates over half of UK students’ international placements.

Universities UK welcomed December’s phase one agreement and the subsequent confirmation from the Prime Minister that the UK will remain in the current Erasmus+ programme until it ends in 2020. We now urge the government to negotiate UK participation in the successor programme from 2021 and to stand with us in our effort to double the proportion of UK students who go abroad.

We must continue to maintain momentum behind this important issue. Outward student mobility represents another way in which universities change lives and shape futures. Students who go abroad enhance their skillsets and are more likely to get better degrees and better jobs. It is our role to ensure that they are aware of the many international opportunities on offer, and the benefits they bring.

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