“By going overseas, even for a short period, students build networks that can raise the UK’s profile and develop skills that contribute to UK jobs and growth.”

International students are rarely out of the headlines, often linked to the hotly debated immigration issue. The demand for UK teaching and qualifications continues unabated, and overseas students’ contribution to the UK’s culture, academia and economy must not be downplayed. But there is another story which rarely excites journalists in quite the same way and yet stands to have a huge impact on the UK’s ability to compete globally, and the employability of our young people. And that’s the issue of our own students engaging in internationalisation; going abroad to study, work and volunteer as part of their higher education.

Fortunately, whilst the media may be overlooking the importance of international experience, it is not lost on the higher education sector, which is uniting to find new ways to tempt students to take advantage of the opportunities open to them. Few would argue that a period of study, work or volunteering abroad as part of an individual’s higher education can benefit both the individual and the UK as a whole.

By going overseas, even for a short period, students build networks that can raise the UK’s profile and develop skills that contribute to UK jobs and growth. After all, multinationals want employees who see their business goals in global terms; who understand cultural sensitivities; who speak languages; and who can build relationships across time zones.

This is why the Government’s International Education Strategy includes the development and implementation of a UK Strategy for Outward Mobility, a strategy which reiterates the UK’s commitment to developing global graduates. It aims to increase the proportion of UK domiciled students undertaking a form of international experience as part of their higher education, whether undergraduate, postgraduate or research level. It seeks to widen participation in student mobility opportunities, increasing the number of students undertaking study or work placements from underrepresented subjects and from diverse backgrounds.

And those seeking bold headlines will be relieved to know that it isn’t all good news. A recent report on conditions for learning abroad across Europe by Eurydice shows that the UK nations lag behind many of their European counterparts – including Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries – in terms of portability of public grants and loans to fund student mobility. When recognising learning outcomes of overseas study and work, we compare poorly to countries like Belgium, Germany and Spain. The report also suggests that, unlike most European countries, we are woeful in terms of preparing students for mobility when it comes to language skills – unsurprising given the lack of joined-up language learning policy in the UK.

Our disappointing ranking on this mobility scoreboard makes the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility critically important. We need to do more research into the specific academic, economic and social benefits of student mobility but the overall message from the Global Graduate programme is already clear. Employers across the globe want graduates that can operate internationally. They want graduates that have had exposure to other cultures, that have developed awareness of how different cultures can operate across a diverse team and that can put their intercultural skills into practice in a work context.

As well as researching the benefits, we also need to identify the actual barriers to student mobility. While cost is a barrier to many potential participants, it’s true that even where funding is available, for example via the Erasmus programme, the UK still doesn’t achieve the level of take-up as France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland.

While students might enthuse about a funded opportunity to go overseas at open days or at the beginning of their academic programme, it doesn’t translate into numbers going overseas. Our challenge is to identify the reasons why students – and academic staff – decide not to go overseas, and work with the higher education sector to minimise the barriers. We must also recognise that not all students will be able to travel, due to personal circumstances, but they should still be able to access international experience on their home campus. Many higher education institutions are already developing innovative ways to utilise international staff and students to build international networks and develop global skills in the UK student population.

To ensure that UK graduates are equipped to compete on the global stage – socially and economically – we need to ensure that overseas experience is embedded in our higher education culture and that all students see it as a relevant option. It should not be the preserve of language students or those following a course with the word ‘international’ in the title. The vision is that study and work abroad should be open to all, regardless of income, course length or subject discipline. The UK Strategy for Outward Mobility can help to ensure that vision becomes a reality.

Anne Marie Graham is Head of Programme, Outward Student Mobility at the UK Higher Education International Unit and leads on the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility, which aims to increase the proportion of UK domiciled students accessing international opportunities during their higher education. For more information about the International Unit, visit their website here.

One of the NCUB’s initiatives include Global Graduates, which brings together a group of senior leaders from higher education and business to build on the Global Graduates into Global Leaders research undertaken by the Council for Industry and Higher Education (Now NCUB), the Association of Graduate Recruiters, and research agency CFE in 2011. NCUB are currently working on the next stage of the Global Graduates programme. This involves working with universities and businesses to develop ways in which the skills needed for global employability can be embedded into students’ learning experience, and how businesses can seek to attract global talent.

For more information about our Global Graduates project, click here.

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