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HEi-think: Why the UK needs more globally mobile students

Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, explains why her organisation has launched a campaign to double the percentage of UK students who are studying or working abroad.

 

Universities work hard to equip their graduates to succeed in the workplace and to contribute to society. Now more than ever this means that graduates need to be globally minded – open to opportunities wherever they occur in the world; able to work with colleagues and partners from other countries; and able to play their part in responding to the global challenges which face us all.

That is why Universities UK International has launched the Go International: Stand Out campaign to double the percentage of students working, volunteering and studying abroad during their degrees by 2020.

Our universities excel at attracting international students and academic staff, they build fantastic international research partnerships and offer transnational education in astonishing numbers. However, currently only 6.6 per cent of UK undergraduate students spend any time studying, working or volunteering abroad as part of their degrees. That number is too low, in my view.

This means we are behind our global counterparts. 15 per cent of students in the USA, 19 per cent of Australian students and 25 per cent of German students currently undertake an international placement. All these countries are looking to increase mobility even further - for example, Germany is aiming for 50 per cent by 2020. I strongly believe the UK can start catching up and now is the time to start.

There is strong evidence demonstrating that outward student mobility can improve academic and employability outcomes. When compared to students who don't complete a placement, students who go abroad are 9 per cent more likely to gain a 1st or 2:1 degree and 24 per cent less likely to be unemployed.

International experiences help develop cultural understanding, allow students to gain confidence and learn to adapt. Our campaign aims to help universities offer a range of opportunities to cater for students from different backgrounds. We want opportunities to work, study or volunteer abroad to be an achievable option for anyone at university.

Our report on widening participation in outward student mobility revealed underrepresented student groups are less likely to spend time overseas despite having more to gain. It also found short-term mobility options are often more attractive offer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A two-week international experience can be just as valuable as a whole year away: it’s all about what works for the individual.

At the campaign launch, two alumni spoke about their international experience. They both attributed their professional success since graduating to their placements overseas. They talked with passion, clarity and enthusiasm. It was a real pleasure to hear from them and was a brilliant reminder why we’re running this campaign.

Fatima Afzal, a graduate from Aston University spent a year in Malaysia working in a petrochemical company. She has since worked in the UK and the USA. She said if she hadn’t taken a chance and worked in Malaysia, she “would be closing doors” because of her own fear.

Spending time overseas isn’t easy. It’s the ability to cope with challenging circumstances that, in part, make these experiences so enriching. I am lucky to hear inspiring stories from colleagues at universities of students that have overcome barriers to participate in outward mobility programmes. People like Simmone Mclean who faced her anxieties to spend a semester in the Netherlands with her daughter. She found the experience “empowering” and that “anything was possible” - which is exactly how we want our students to feel.

I’ve been delighted by the response to the campaign so far. To have 55 of our universities sign our charter and submit a pledge is a testament to the importance of this campaign. Many of the pledges are ambitious, they aim to widen participation and they step away from business as usual. As the campaign starts to gain traction, I feel confident that by 2020 we will be celebrating the success of meeting our ambitious target.

jjvallee / 123RF
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