Friday 30 December 2016


An overwhelming number of young people want to see international exchange schemes such as Erasmus+ protected as the UK prepares to leave the European Union, a study by the British Council has found.

Amongst 2,000 UK adults surveyed about their attitudes towards language learning and international awareness in light of the EU referendum, 74 per cent of 18-24 year olds said opportunities for young people to experience other languages and cultures must be maintained. 

Every year, around 7,000 UK language students currently benefit from a year abroad through Erasmus+, an EU programme managed in the UK by the British Council in partnership with Ecorys UK, improving their language skills either at university or working as Language Assistants. 

In addition, approximately 3,000 UK school staff bring benefits to their schools with physical and virtual exchanges across Europe through Erasmus+.

Ruth Sinclair-Jones, Director of the Erasmus+ UK National Agency based at the British Council, said: “The benefits of Erasmus+ for the UK cannot be underestimated – it allows young people to broaden their horizons and to gain vital skills by studying or working abroad.

“To lose participation would be a huge loss to a generation that obviously values such opportunities – and the international experience that they bring. We must do everything we can to ensure the Erasmus+ scheme – and other similar opportunities - are protected as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.” 

In addition to Erasmus+, school exchanges and teaching schemes - such as the British Council’s Language Assistants programme - are other popular options currently available for young people in the UK to spend time abroad. A 2014 study by YouGov on behalf of the British Council found that among university language students, almost two thirds (62 per cent) said an international exchange influenced their decision to study the subject, while a study in August 2016 found 83 per cent of students believed that study abroad had strengthened their job prospects*.

However, in a separate study carried out by YouGov for the British Council the same year, under half of British secondary schools (39 per cent) were found to run traditional exchange trips involving a stay with a host family, with strong variations between schools that were maintained by a local authority (30 per cent) and independent schools (77 per cent). There is concern that losing opportunities such as these will impact language learning more widely. 

Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: “School exchanges are great opportunities to learn languages and experience new cultures. 

“The visits are a ‘light bulb’ moment for some, and inspire them towards languages, boosting job prospects and connecting them with the wider world. 

“As the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, languages matter now more than ever. And with the UK already facing a languages shortfall, we cannot risk losing opportunities which allow our young people to acquire these vital skills.” 

The new research, carried out by Populus, was commissioned by the British Council – the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.

Other key findings in the Populus survey were:

  • 40 per cent of 18-24 year olds claim to speak a foreign language well enough to hold a basic conversation in that language, compared to 21 per cent of 45-54 year olds, 24 per cent of 55-64 year olds and 25 per cent of those aged 65+
  • 24 per cent of 18-24 year olds claim to speak a foreign language to a high standard, compared to five per cent of 45-54 year olds, four per cent of 55-64 year olds and seven per cent of those aged 65+
  • However, 49 per cent of 18-24 year olds admit to being embarrassed by their lack of foreign language skills, compared to 41 per cent of 45-54 year olds, 40 per cent of 55-64 year olds and 41 per cent of those aged 65+
  • 83 per cent of 18-24 year olds agreed that speaking more than one language is an important skill to have and 86 per cent said it would bring ‘greater employment opportunities.’ 

The British Council has called for an Open Brexit in which the UK seeks to maintain and enhance cultural ties with Europe as the country prepares to leave the EU. This would include continued ease of movement for students, academics and creative professionals; increased cultural, educational and scientific partnership, connections and research; and enhanced investment into the UK’s cultural and educational connections with countries globally.

*For more information see the press release

Notes to Editor

Populus interviewed a random sample of 2,083 UK adults aged 18+ from its online panel between 26-27 October 2016. The weighted sample of 18-24 year olds was 242. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. Please note that some of the figures used exclude those who selected ‘not applicable’. Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at

A full regional breakdown of the data is available on request.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We create friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and other countries. Using the UK’s cultural resources we make a positive contribution to the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust.

We work with over 100 countries across the world in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. Each year we reach over 20 million people face-to-face and more than 500 million people online, via broadcasts and publications.

Founded in 1934, we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. The majority of our income is raised delivering a range of projects and contracts in English teaching and examinations, education and development contracts and from partnerships with public and private organisations. Eighteen per cent of our funding is received from the UK government.