By Elizabeth Shepherd

30 April 2013 - 17:07

'A large number of students look favourably on overseas study as an opportunity to travel and see the world.'
'A large number of students look favourably on overseas study as an opportunity to see the world.' Photo ©

Benson Kua, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The British Council’s Elizabeth Shepherd delves into new research that explains why some students decide to study abroad while others stay at home.

Since 2007 we have been tracking the opinions of international students to better understand their international study aspirations. Why do they choose to study outside their home country? Most cite higher-quality education, teachers, courses and facilities than those immediately available to them at home as the most important factors, followed by the cultural experience of living and studying overseas.

On average, two per cent of countries’ tertiary level education population will pursue overseas study. This is often due to insufficient domestic opportunities, over-subscription to a limited number of places at high-quality institutions, and lack of diversity in the programmes available to them at home.

But in countries such as the UK and the USA, where there are already plenty of quality education institutions (albeit increasingly expensive) providing world-class education and training, why would students look elsewhere to learn?

Because skills gained whilst pursuing overseas study develop and expand a student’s abilities and credentials, making them more competitive and attractive to future employers. Recent British Council research showed global employers value candidates who understand and accept different cultures, build trust and work in diverse teams. All of these are intercultural skills gained in spades whilst studying abroad.

The issue: do UK and US students know this? In our recent Broadening Horizons report, we found that, by and large, students already exposed to and interested in study abroad opportunities do understand the benefits to be gained. 82 per cent of UK and 72 per cent of US students indicated they believed they would need more than their current qualification to gain employment after graduation. 90 per cent of these UK and 88 per cent of US respondents indicated they saw a study abroad experience as offering a way to go gain these skills and get ahead when applying for future jobs.

But our aim is not to preach to the converted, to those students already exposed to overseas learning opportunities. These should not be the group upon which to focus time and resources. Understanding why 80 per cent of the UK and 44 per cent of the US respondents to our research said they were not considering overseas study or had not yet made their choice is the key to eliminating barriers, perceived or real, that students face.

We learned from our research that a large number of students look favourably on overseas study as an opportunity to travel and see the world, without putting great emphasis on academic opportunity and improvement. It is later in their careers that they learn how the experience benefited them more broadly than perhaps they had originally expected — the point at which they may also become better at and more equipped to explain the soft skills of cross-cultural team-working and analytical thinking they developed along the way.

Cost and foreign language learning were consistently highlighted as barriers to both UK and US students studying overseas. However, current students abroad that we spoke to, the majority of which were or had recently been studying in China, said that these barriers were not as impactful as they had originally expected.

Most had benefited from scholarships from home and host governments and also received language learning lessons as part of their programmes. They revealed that once they had adequate information, these barriers, some real and some perceived to be, had been broken down.

This theme ran consistently through the data collected across our research; barriers, perceived or real, were broken down when students were given information to tackle them.

Our research showed there is great interest from both UK and US students in pursuing overseas study. But with 80 per cent of UK students planning to stay in the UK, this could be improved. Perhaps the greatest take-away from our study should be that 'broadening horizons' must begin at home. Greater emphasis needs to be given to the early development of soft skills with a clear line drawn between intercultural skills and future employment opportunities.

If you are 16 to 25 and live in the UK, visit our Study Work Create portal to find out about opportunities to travel and work abroad.

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