A new British Council report shows how international experience develops skills which benefit individuals, employers, and the UK economy.

Experiencing the world and improving yourself

The need to engage with people from different countries is greater for young people today than for any previous generation. To be able to thrive in life and work in an increasingly global environment, future generations will need an international outlook and internationally-applicable skills. The opportunity to spend an extended period working, studying or travelling abroad helps develop these skills.

The research found that international opportunities helped individuals to understand their priorities, find interesting jobs, and build fulfilling careers. People with international experience are more confident in their ability to interact with those from other countries. Of those surveyed, the majority who had worked, studied or extensively travelled abroad felt they worked well (81%) and could communicate confidently (71%) with people from different countries and cultures.

More surprisingly, they were also more likely to describe themselves as having important transferrable skills such as analytical and critical thinking (73%) and problem-solving (83%).

Perhaps most strikingly, the report suggests they also have greater involvement in innovation – a key area of importance to the UK’s future productivity

Perhaps most strikingly, the report suggests they also have greater involvement in innovation – a key area of importance to the UK’s future productivity. Around half were involved in research and development or product improvement activities, compared to just a quarter of those without international experience.

These benefits also increase the longer the time spent abroad. Some 85% of those with deep experience - defined as at least three months work or study abroad or over six months travelling - described themselves as confident in their ability to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations. This compared to 77% of those who had spent between one and three months overseas. Longer stays appear to offer greater opportunity for immersion. It seems that the duration of the exposure and the degree of immersion have an impact on the benefits derived.

The study also suggests that opportunities gained later in life, such as work placements and university study abroad, have the greatest impact on skills development: 84% of survey respondents who had worked abroad believed they had developed as a person during their time overseas, compared to 67% of those with school-level experiences. However, two-thirds of those who had spent at least three months abroad had been involved in multiple previous trips, such as school exchanges, indicating that their first international experience had stimulated their appetite and/or enabled their ability to pursue additional international opportunities.

Chart showing Involvement in Innovative activities
Improving innovation. Involvement in innovative activities.

Implications for policy

It is perhaps not surprising that the research found that individuals speaking a foreign language were more likely to participate in international activities, as were those with a family member who has worked or studied abroad. But other patterns also emerged. Participation was higher amongst those with degrees. There was also significant variance between men and women at each end of the spectrum, with girls more likely to take part in school exchanges, and men more likely to take up opportunities to work abroad and to have longer, deeper experiences. Whilst more research is needed to understand these differences and identify the barriers to participation, it is likely that individuals not fitting this profile are missing out on valuable development opportunities. This also has a potential negative knock-on effect on employers and ultimately the economic success of the UK. Conversely, increasing the participation of some groups with international opportunities could assist with social mobility.

The UK would therefore be well advised to find ways to increase young people’s participation in international programmes, be they study-, work- or travel-related. Given that this research suggests an early international exposure stimulates interest and enables people to take up further opportunities, it is crucial that participation should be encouraged from an early age, including school exchanges.

As these benefits of international experience become better understood, employers will arguably become more likely to value such experience more and to make it clearer that they want and will reward those who have such experience in their recruitment processes. This in turn would be likely to encourage more people to seek to burnish their CV’s with such experiences. 

Policymakers should consider developing an educational policy that explains the benefits of international experiences and supports greater participation in international programmes - including increased opportunity for young people to learn foreign languages - and that focuses on encouraging participation among those socio-economic and demographic groups that may currently be missing out.

It is also important that employers invest in programmes that give individuals the opportunity to gain work experience overseas throughout their careers. This could have benefits for the wider organisation, supporting the development of an engaged and productive workforce.

In general, given the benefits which flow from international experience, much more should be done to encourage it

Meanwhile, providers of international opportunities should identify and communicate more clearly the benefits that participants can expect to gain from their programmes, helping individuals to choose those most closely aligned with their development needs. In general, given the benefits which flow from international experience, much more should be done to encourage it.