A new report finds that over two thirds of young adults in the UK believe that having international experience and a global outlook are essential to achieving their aspirations. Yet many have no opportunity to acquire foreign language skills and have never lived or studied abroad. Addressing this will be of particular importance to a more global Britain as the country leaves the EU.

Internationalising the UK

The UK’s next generation is different from its predecessors. Today’s young people are more connected and more international in their aspirations. Yet, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is a good moment to consider how well prepared its next generation is to embrace a more global future. Young British people’s skills and potential will need to be fully harnessed if they and the country as a whole are to succeed after Brexit. Fulfilling their international aspirations could have an important role to play in ensuring that success.  

The UK’s next generation is different from its predecessors. Today’s young people are more connected and more international in their aspirations

For several years, the British Council has been conducting flagship research into the attitudes, fears and aspirations of young people in countries around the world, taking an in-depth look at the issues and challenges they face in a changing world. Now, at a pivotal moment in the country’s history, it has focussed on young people in the UK. The resulting report, Next Generation UK, was produced for the British Council by Demos, based on social media analysis, focus groups, workshops and policy roundtables, and a representative survey (conducted by IpsosMori) of 2,000 18-30 year olds. It was guided from start to finish by an Advisory Board of fifteen young adults. 

Key results of the survey include the finding that over two thirds of respondents said that they have an international outlook, and that having such an outlook is important in order to achieve their personal goals. 56% were ambitious to work abroad. 57% were positive about the effects of globalisation on the UK (although only 44% were positive about its effects on their own local areas, and those from less privileged social or educational backgrounds, or from the Midlands or the North, were less likely to have an international outlook). 

However, while so many young British adults reported having an international outlook, many had little substantial experience of international engagement, such as living, working, or studying abroad (only one in seven had done so), or travelling abroad for more than three months, or speaking a foreign language, or even having friends living in different countries - indeed almost a quarter had had none of these experiences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a close overlap between those surveyed who did not have any such experience and those who were more negative about globalisation. This raises the question of whether there are significant groups of young people in the UK in danger of being ‘left behind’ by globalisation.  

Common concerns amongst those questioned for the report included reduced funding for year abroad schemes and potential restrictions on working abroad. This echoes previous findings by the LSE that found that 77% of people aged 18-39 would miss the right to work or study abroad if those opportunities were taken away from them. Lack of language skills were also commonly mentioned as a key barrier to greater international engagement, as was perceived cost. With declining numbers of school children studying foreign languages like German, and with more than 15,000 students affected by changes to the Erasmus + scheme, there is clearly much that could be done to meet some of these concerns. 

It should be clarified that the importance of increasing the international experience of young British people as the country leaves the EU is not merely about maintaining links with Europe. Just as important will be increasing connections with the rest of the world. Indeed, those surveyed for the report were slightly more likely (by 57% to 56%) to be very or fairly interested in working in a country outside Europe than one in mainland Europe. 

Infographic from Next Generation report
‘Which of the following, if any, have you ever done?’. Infographic ©

courtesy of Next Generation UK.

A World of Experience

There is strong evidence to suggest that increasing the international engagement of the UK’s young people would be positive for the economy as a whole as well as for them individually. The recent British Council report ‘A World of Experience’ found that those who had lived, worked, or studied abroad were more likely to describe themselves as being flexible and adaptable and having good communication skills, with the strong problem solving and analytical skills needed for innovation in the workplace. Sure enough, around half of those with international experience were involved with innovation in their jobs, compared to only a quarter of those who had no international experience. This has important potential consequences for the productivity of the UK workforce.

Students who study abroad for a year during their degrees are more likely to secure better paid jobs and have higher incomes, and are less likely to experience unemployment, than those who do not

Furthermore, students who study abroad for a year during their degrees are more likely to secure better paid jobs and have higher incomes, and are less likely to experience unemployment, than those who do not. Importantly, there is some (albeit contested) evidence that shorter periods of living or studying abroad can be just as beneficial as longer periods. This all implies that policymakers and educationalists in the UK should encourage young people to study abroad, even if only for short periods, as well as increasing exposure to foreign languages and cultural exchange. 

On conclusion of the research, the Next Generation Advisory Board made a number of recommendations, including that the UK government should provide clear assurances during Brexit negotiations that it will protect and improve opportunities for young British people to travel, work, and study abroad. It also calls on employers, careers advisors, educationalists, and civil society organisations to help encourage a culture of lifelong international engagement, including building partnerships between schools, universities and employers in the UK with counterparts in other countries. Doing so will not just help the next generation to achieve their aspirations and fulfil their potential. It could also play an important part in improving the UK’s cultural and economic capabilities as it aims to move towards a more global future.

Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor and Senior Policy Analyst, British Council