Time is of the essence as fewer EU students head abroad


A year abroad is perceived as a must-have for many European graduate employers. However, recent data from the European Union shows that the number of EU students studying abroad is stagnating. Periods of study in a foreign country are becoming shorter and are being put off completely by many.

Studying abroad was once an essential part of the European university experience. Students would take advantage of the free tuition in many countries, reaching out beyond their own subject to broaden their knowledge. They would try new things, learn a new language and gain vital experience coming to terms with a new country and culture. For many Europeans, however, studying abroad has become an expensive luxury fewer and fewer students believe they can afford.

This year, the EU set an ambitious goal regarding foreign periods of study. Ministers in Brussels hope that by 2020, 50% of all union member students will spend some time studying in a foreign European country during their degree course. This figure may not seem unachievable, but when one considers that the current percentage has been steadily decreasing over the past 10 years to lower than 30%, the EU may have a battle on its hands.

Not only are fewer students heading to foreign shores, the periods of time spend at overseas universities are becoming increasingly shorter. Students believe they can no longer afford to spend a whole year away from their highly structured and jam-packed 3 year Bachelor degree courses. The numbers confirm this belief – over the last ten years, the average length of a foreign study period has decreased from 6.9 to 5.7 months.

“Holiday Semesters”

One considerable problem that many students encounter is that the credits they collect at foreign institutions are, in most cases, not accepted by their home university. This means that it is almost inevitable that the time spent abroad has to be repeated following the exchange. The difficulty of transferring credits between countries may have also damaged the image of foreign study. According to a recent study by the German Academic Exchange Service, studying abroad, especially under the Erasmus scheme, is becoming increasingly seen as a “Holiday semester” rather than a serious academic challenge.

Many European universities are attempting to combat this image by creating partner institutions between which credits may be transferred. However, for many students the risk of achieving poor marks due to a language barrier or unknown academic formalities is too high.

The financial burden of studying abroad

Although university tuition is free in the majority of EU countries, the extra cost of a foreign stay during a degree course may also be a defining factor for the declining number and decreasing length of University exchanges. As student debts continue to rise and the graduate job market continues to prove unstable, more and more students aim to keep their debt to a minimum. Even if students do not have to pay tuition fees to study abroad, the cost of another year out of full employment is proving too high for many.

The real deal – more students completing Masters degrees at foreign universities

Some universities in Europe have decided to opt for compulsory periods of study abroad for students during Bachelor degrees. This does not just apply to Modern Language degrees, but is becoming increasingly common for other fields of study such as economics or law.

In addition to the increase in compulsory foreign study, the number of students completing a Masters degree in a foreign country has also continued to rise over the past 10 years. Due to the competitive nature of the graduate employment market, employers in certain countries now expect applicants to have at least completed a Master’s degree before starting their first job. For this reason, more and more students each year decide to complete their postgraduate degrees in a foreign country. By doing this, they not only achieve the qualification many employers expect, but also take advantage of the personal benefits of foreign study. In reaction to this, the majority of state-funded universities in Europe now offer Master’s courses in English, many of these without tuition fees.

No time to lose

Clearly many students are beginning to doubt the benefits of studying abroad as part of their Bachelor’s degree. Time and money seem to be the driving factor behind this trend. Students clearly feel the pressure of future debt and are also asking themselves whether the experience itself is worthwhile. In any case, the EU has a tough job on its hands to prove to students that a semester or year abroad is worthy of its expensive price tag.