UK education is well-recognized around the globe, so it is no surprise that its universities are strong at attracting foreign students. In 2012-13 there were over 425,000 international students in the UK (making up 18% of the total UK student population), according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs. This places the UK at number 2 in the list of the world’s most popular destinations for international students, after the US.
However, the UK lags far behind other countries when it comes to sending students abroad. A report by the UK Higher Education International Unit found that the country ranks a lowly 25th in the world for the number of its students studying abroad.
Why should this be a cause for concern?
In numerous surveys, such as one conducted by CBI, UK business leaders have expressed their fears for the country’s position in an increasingly competitive global economy, if British young people do not gain international experience. The CBI points out that 71% of employers are not satisfied with the foreign language skills of British young people, and 55% perceive shortfalls in their international cultural awareness.
Studying abroad seems to pay off. A recent report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England indicated that students who had had an Erasmus exchange were more likely than their home-bound peers to be employed or in further study sixth months after graduating, and also on average have higher salaries.
How can we explain the UK’s disappointing record in sending young people abroad?
The first important factor is poor language skills. We need to encourage younger students to choose a second language at school, and explain to them that this choice will benefit them in the long run – not only will they be able to put their skills into practice if they choose a course abroad, but further down the line they will also be able to impress employers and might even earn more.
The second hindrance on studying abroad is lack of information about the wide range of international options. This was shown up by a recent study by Broadening Horizons: while 20% of the students surveyed said they were considering studying oversea, only 24% felt they had enough information to make a well-informed decision.
It seems clear that for the UK to remain competitive in the global labour market, we need more of our young people to study overseas. The benefits to the young people are also clear - they get to experience new cultures, understand different ways of working, and develop new language skills. And later in life they might even earn more too.
(c) Nick Harris, flickr