By Zainab Malik

01 June 2015 - 09:07

'Studying abroad helps students become more self-confident.' Photo (c) Mat Wright
'Studying abroad helps students become more self-confident.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

The UK doesn’t send out nearly as many students abroad as it welcomes. How can the UK encourage its students to travel further afield to study? Zainab Malik explains the British Council's latest research on the subject.

Studying abroad helps students become more self-confident and gives them a more sophisticated understanding of cultural differences. It's also an investment in their academic and professional future. Evidence shows that students who study abroad tend to be more flexible, receive higher marks, and get better-paying jobs.

Relatively few UK students study abroad

The latest statistics from the Erasmus student exchange programme show that 15,566 UK students spent up to a year studying or working in another European country, nearly a seven per cent increase year on year.

Despite this increase, relatively few students from the UK, which is one of the top inbound study destination countries, go abroad to study. The best estimates state that roughly two per cent of UK students study overseas. By comparison, according to UNESCO, 17 per cent of all students in the UK are foreign students.

Government programmes like the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility have been set up to change this. But there are still barriers, both perceived and real, that stop students venturing abroad.

UK students want to experience foreign travel

Research by the British Council shows that the top motivation for students wanting to study overseas was the unique experience of simply going abroad. Perhaps the more significant finding was that the majority of those who indicated they were uninterested in overseas study were nevertheless interested in travelling, living and even working abroad – just not studying abroad.

This raises the question: if students who don't want to study abroad are still open to the idea of going abroad, what is stopping them taking the plunge?

What holds UK students back

As in past years, we found that the main barriers to studying abroad were costs, perceived lack of language skills, and anxiety about personal well-being. Students who did aspire to study overseas also initially had these concerns, and their concerns didn't completely disappear after they went abroad. Once the students had access to clear information, their worries however diminished.

A concurrent study — commissioned by the UK Higher Education International Unit and the British Council, and to be released next month — that looked specifically at UK student views yielded similar results. It also found that, once students studied abroad, the experience changed how they felt about the barriers they'd originally found daunting. It also found that these students' experiences were a valuable way to share knowledge and dispel other students' fears about studying abroad.

Students want to hear about others' experiences of study abroad

We found that UK students, in particular, wanted a more comprehensive approach to how they received information about studying abroad. They especially wanted to hear from students and faculty who could share their experiences first-hand.

With the right information, students can make the best choice

Students need to be able to easily find information that will mitigate their concerns about going abroad to study, but they also need to know about the overall benefits of the experience. The purpose of outward mobility is multidimensional - it helps the student's intellectual and cultural development, and is likely to lead to long-term rewards. It further helps students become competitive.

We need to provide the information that will help students first understand the value of studying abroad and then make informed choices about it.

In our Broadening Horizons report this year (live from noon UK time on 2 June 2015), we surveyed nearly 7,500 UK and US students to understand their motivations for and apprehensions towards overseas study.

Find out more about Going Global, the conference for higher education leaders. The session takes place on 2 June 2015.

Find out how international opportunities benefit individuals and employers, and support UK prosperity, in our latest report.

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