New figures from “Gone International: Mobility works” show students’ chances of going abroad as part of their university education rely mostly on the European Union’s (EU) Erasmus+ staff and student exchange programme.
As UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s self-set deadline to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to withdraw from the EU looms closer, the higher education sector is worried the UK will be excluded from these programmes that are crucial to local students’ outward mobility rates.
According to the report, UK universities have eagerly embraced the outward mobility agenda put into place by the Strategy for Outward Mobility, launched in 2013.
Many set this as part of their internationalisation strategies – the UK’s increased participation in the EU’s mobility programme rose by more than 50 percent since 2007-8 and reached record levels in 2013-14.
As a result of these strategies, 7.2 percent of 2014-2015 graduates were able to call themselves mobile, an increase from the 5.4 percent recorded the previous year.
There was a 33 percent rise in the number of students who went abroad between 2013-14 and 2014-15, based on the responses to successive Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) surveys.
But the report says this growth was only made possible by the UK’s increased participation in the EU’s mobility programme.
In 2014-15, Erasmus+ was the reason 46 percent of students went abroad for a week or more.
This reliance means Brexit will affect UK student mobility within Europe and the overall level of their mobility, according to education stakeholders.
Of the top five destination countries for these mobile students, EU countries accounted for four: France (23.8 percent), Spain (16.5 percent), U.S. (9.8 percent), Germany (9.3 percent) and Italy (4.9 percent), the report found.
“The availability of this scheme [Erasmus+] enables universities to offer mobility to students,” Rosalind Lowe, a policy researcher for Universities UK told University World News.
“And the brand name makes them more familiar to students. So to be able to maintain something like that is very important to us.”
Alternatives in discussion
Lowe calls on the British government to continue such access to Erasmus+ to continue post-Brexit, while preparing for alternatives.
“We are discussing with members on alternative schemes. Switzerland is one example we are looking at, as it still manages to engage. But the structures there now are the ones we would like to stay with.”
Losing membership with Erasmus+ holds other consequences to the UK as well, such as lagging behind other countries’ plans to send more students abroad as well as holding up efforts to send more disadvantaged students overseas.
— Erasmus+ (@EUErasmusPlus) March 5, 2017
“In 2014-15, around one in 15 UK undergraduate students went abroad as part of their degree,” Lowe said in her analysis.
“This represents substantial progress from one in 21 students the year before. But the UK still falls far short of the level of participation achieved in other major European and English-speaking countries.”
The report had shown white students were twice as likely to go abroad, and wealthier students were almost twice as likely than their poorer counterparts to go abroad.
Black students from more disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be the least likely to study abroad.
Tackling this will prove harder if the country loses its spot in Erasmus+, which aids students from disadvantaged backgrounds through the provision of top-up grants.
And with lesser chances to go abroad, students from minority groups stand to lose out on the improved academic and employment outcomes that come from with it, which the report had found to be more pronounced for the disadvantaged groups.
“We know students who are mobile have higher employment prospects,” said Raegan Hiles, the head of outbound mobility programme for Universities UK.
“But when we break that down, we see graduates from under-represented groups, if they were mobile, tend to have better outcomes afterwards, so they tend to be less unemployed, more likely to earn a better degree, and more likely to be in a graduate job.”