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Should more students study abroad?

Hannah Smithson asks why more UK students don’t pursue education and employment abroad, and what attracts international students to the UK.

Studying at home

The thought of travelling to far off lands to live and study can be a scary yet exciting prospect. Different cultures, languages, food and people are just some of the delights of travelling and reasons why brave fledglings choose to fly outside their comfort zone and take the plunge into a new life abroad. But for many Brits it seems there is no better place than home.

According to the latest research from the British Council fewer than 2% of UK students are studying abroad despite the opportunities it presents. Mark Moulding from the British Council said their research shows 'businesses are saying that international skills are more important than exam results, but graduates are lacking in these skills. So many UK students don’t quite realise how studying abroad could have a real, positive impact on their career prospects. That’s something we’re working to change.'

Compared to countries like China which offers a comprehensive set of scholarships for domestic students to study overseas, the UK looks like it's stumbling behind. 'There’s a real risk that the UK ’s competitive edge could be damaged if our graduates don’t have enough experience of the wider world,' Mark explained 'We know that this is the kind of experience that employers want, and other countries including France and Germany are sending many more students abroad each year than we are.'

So why do so many UK students choose to stay in Britain for their education?

Beatrice Merrick, Director of Services and Research at UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs), explained that there has never been a real need for UK students to study abroad as domestically there are enough quality places at UK universities compared with other countries.

'You get the UCAS stories every year where students don’t get places but it is a comparatively small number compared to many other countries, like South Africa at the moment, with a huge demand that just can’t be met domestically. And the UK has a good reputation for quality education with Russell Group universities.'

Sarah Nash, Director of Study Options, a company working with UK students wanting to study in Australia and New Zealand, said that often people are put off studying abroad due to the costs involved and language barriers.

'Certainly UK students are very keen to go to English speaking countries which I can understand because to study in a foreign language, however fluent you are at tertiary level, is no mean feat.

'I think that money is a very key consideration. Even though fees here have risen to £9,000 a year at some universities, you can still access a student loan. If you go abroad, you cannot use your student loan. If you’re an 18 year old, that is quite a sum of money to find. You have to be from a family background where your parents can afford to pay for that cost of education upfront which will automatically rule out a lot of people.

'Interestingly now, I think the rise in tuition fees has made people stop and think – actually if I’m going to spend this kind of money, what do I get for that investment?'

With companies such as Study Options raising awareness, it has become much easier to find out about studying abroad but, according to Beatrice, 'we have to acknowledge that the number of UK students who leave school with a good enough knowledge of another language to be able to study in that language is probably quite small compared to students in many parts of the world who study English from a young age and have much much greater fluency.'

Studying away

'I always knew I was going to do it,' said Eleanor Linton, a UK student who studied at the University of Hong Kong last year as part of her sandwich Fashion Retail degree.

'I picked my course because I knew I had the opportunity to go to Hong Kong. There was just one place but few people applied and I was the lucky one who got it. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to think that they couldn’t afford to do it and that it would look better on their CV if they did work placements rather than going abroad but then speaking to them afterwards, they said they wish they’d done study abroad.'

Eleanor studied Mandarin but said most people didn’t study a language there.

'I think so many English people are totally intimidated by learning a new language and they think there is a massive preconception that they are going to have be fluent in somewhere like Hong Kong. When I got back, a lot of people thought I had my lectures in Chinese. I definitely didn’t. I had them all in English.

'It’s just made me realise that there isn’t just a set thing that you have to go to university and get a graduate job and live in London – there is just so much more.’

Another perspective on being an international student comes from Cristina, an English language student from Spain studying in Bournemouth and she says she came over to England to improve her future career prospects.

'I know now that if I want a good job in the future then I must know English. Many jobs in Spain require a certain level and I thought what better time to do it whilst Spain is going through crisis. There are no jobs there at the moment, so I may as well stay here and invest in my future while I can.'

People sometimes argue that education is a recession proof industry because when the job prospects are dim it is often a good time to go and study.

Debbie Cambone, Marketing Assistant at Anglo-Continental language school in Bournemouth, said that she had actually seen an increase in language students, especially the Spanish market, since the recession.

'What people tend to do is invest in their education when they can’t get a job. We have a range of ages from a wide range of countries – people in their 20s up to a gentleman in his 50s. We had over 68 nationalities last year, from all over western Europe, eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia.'

Helena Weir, Digital Marketing Administrator, thinks studying abroad should work a bit more two way but said that numbers of UK students studying abroad probably wouldn’t increase unless the government backed it more.

'I think that the language school industry in England is very large by now and something that should be recognised and supported more because it brings a lot of investment into the country which is needed in a recession. I don’t think English people do look outside their borders enough and I think when it comes to looking for jobs, if a foreign workforce has more skills or is more intelligent then they will be the ones to get the jobs over us.'

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