The UK Higher Education International Unit’s Go International Programme and the British Council have released a report on the benefits of spending time abroad as part of a UK undergraduate degree.

The two bodies came together to commission research into UK-domiciled students’ perspectives on the outcomes of outward mobility after gaining a degree.

The research aims to provide evidence for higher education institutions in the UK, as well as policymakers who are developing initiatives that aim to increase the number of UK-domiciled students accessing international opportunities.

The findings are based on an online survey of 2842 undergraduate students from 37 UK higher education institutions, and focus groups in eight of these institutions. The study included UK-domiciled students who had been abroad, who were considering going abroad, and some who had considered going abroad but decided not to.

Of the students surveyed, nearly all perceived a positive link between mobility programmes of one year or less and academic, career and personal development. Some of the most commonly reported benefits included developing independence, gaining an intercultural understanding and the increased likelihood of working abroad long-term.

Researchers were surprised to note that shorter periods of mobility often had a similar impact to longer periods, which suggests it is the experience of being abroad itself, rather than the purpose of the trip that is of critical value.

Almost all the students who had already been mobile claimed they wished to experience further mobility. Even short visits, such as Summer School or “taster” visits are beneficial because they lead to participation in longer programmes, and they have an impact similar to those of longer term mobility.

Students’ motivation for going abroad tended to be consistent across study abroad, work experience and volunteering. Among the most pressing motivations for going abroad was the desire for new and interesting experiences, the desire to broaden their horizons and seek new opportunity, and to enhance employability and career prospects.

Other common motivations include: developing intercultural awareness, independence and self-confidence, enhancing degree outcome and for some, improving language and communication skills. The motivations cited in the survey were consistent whether the mobility period spanned weeks or the full academic year.

The decision to study abroad is not an easy one to make, and many students reported that the availability of funding, the total cost of the experience, levels of personal safety and security and the reputation or perceived quality of the host location were key factors they considered when making their decision.

When considering studying abroad, the students’ examined a number of barriers, including; fear of isolation, insufficient funding, lack of knowledge regarding available opportunities, lack of language skills as well as language training options, and the potential impact on degree length. Funding and a lack of opportunities were also key concerns for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Vivienne Stern, Director of the UK HE International Unit said, “The UK HE sector wants to increase the number of UK-domiciled students who have an international experience whilst at university.

“In order to do this, we need to better understand what motivates them to go abroad, what they perceive to be the barriers as well as the perceived impact on their personal, academic and career development.

“[This research] demonstrates how important it is that students have access to all the relevant information and funding opportunities as well as the encouragement and support of their tutors to make the most of this life changing experience.”

Earlier this year, a survey by the British Council found that half of those considering study at undergraduate level were seriously considering a course at an overseas institution. A third of the students polled, aged between 16 and 30, said they would be interested in continuing their studies abroad.

Erasmus published statistics showing that during the academic year 2013-14, approximately 15,600 students from the UK spent as long as a year in another European country through their study abroad scheme, a 115% increase on the figures from 2007.

The British Council also noted that figures from Generation UK China, a campaign launched in 2013, show that the number of students going to China to study or work have grown from 6,500 in 2013 to nearly 7,400 last year.

Kevin Van Cauter, Senior Higher Education Advisor for the British Council said, “This research tells us that more and more UK students are enjoying the benefits of going abroad to study, work or volunteer. It’s really important to see that short periods away can still have a big impact, because that reduces the barriers for some people who want to have this valuable experience.

“What’s really exciting is that the British Council’s new Generation UK India programme saw almost 4000 applications for the first 400 places this year…This suggests young people in the UK are eager for many different types of opportunities; the challenge now is for the sector and government to come up with ways to satisfy this desire to explore the world.

“The British Council’s Study Work Create campaign provides a gateway to thousands of funded international opportunities and expert advice about overseas experiences- but we want to offer even more.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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