Why don’t British students spend time abroad?

It’s been a couple of years since I took over as the Erasmus exchange coordinator for my Department (Dept. of English Studies at a university in Germany). While most of my responsibilities are to do with helping students get organised for their stay abroad and helping incoming students navigate our university’s system, another task that requires time and energy is maintaining partnerships and finding (attempting to find?!) new partner institutions.

The university I work at is in (what is said to be) Germany’s oldest city. It’s a beautiful little city steeped in history and set in a landscape of the stunning Moselle river and sloping vineyards. It’s a campus university with a good community feeling and a pretty flexible system for studying. We have classes and even degree programmes taught entirely in English (and some also in French, Spanish, etc.) We charge no tuition fees, just a small one-off payment which then provides students with free travel on busses and trains throughout the region.

So why is it so difficult to find new Erasmus exchange partners in the UK?

Lack of interest

The most common response I receive when contacting colleagues at universities in the UK is that not enough of their students make use of the opportunities to go on an exchange and study abroad for a term/year. It seems many British universities do not manage to fill the places on the exchanges they already have, so they are not really in a position to set up new agreements. This is, in a way, understandable: even if they don’t send any students abroad on an exchange agreement, they still have to accept incoming students from their exchange partners, which leads to an imbalance in their student numbers and can put a strain on their infrastructures. So the basic premise is; until more British students make use of the existing exchange programmes, British universities are reluctant to set up new ones.

Unis don’t promote it

However, it seems to me slightly unfair to push all of the blame for the situation onto the students. For many students at UK universities, spending time abroad seems to be somewhat off their radar. It doesn’t seem to even occur to them that there are options available to them which could enhance their learning experience and plenty of other skills, as well as giving their CVs a boost as graduates.

I’ve looked at a few webpages of the International Offices of British universities, and I’ve found that often the majority of the home page is often given over to sections and links providing information for (potential) incoming students. Current British students, then, could be forgiven for thinking that their International Office is mainly there for the incoming international students, and not particularly for advising them of the international opportunities open to them. This leads me to wonder, then, how many British universities really promote and advertise such opportunities, or host events where current students can find out more or get advicce on the options that might suit them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some very engaged study abroad advisors in Britain, but on the whole I can’t help thinking that International Offices at UK universities could be doing more to get the ‘year abroad’ option back onto their students’ radar!

Degree schemes don’t allow it

Again, though, perhaps the International Offices are not the root of the issue. Scanning through some degrees listed in the UCAS directory and looking at some in detail shows just how few degree programmes automatically have an integrated year abroad. Most of those that do are langauge degrees, or a major subject combined with a language as a minor. What about everyone else? Wouldn’t, for example, Business students benefit from studying (or working) and living in another country? I also read through the information for potential outgoing students at the university where I completed my undergraduate degree. Their website is full of information such as “XXX University has a range of international links open to all departments that cater for study abroad.” This caught my attention and alerted me to the fact that some (many?) degrees and university departments do not even cater for students wishing to spend time abroad, and I wonder how (im)possible they actually make it for students?!

The language barrier

From some informal chats I’ve had and some formal contact with UK universities, it seems to me that a large majority of students (and possibly also lecturers ) in the UK think spending a year abroad is only something that language students should/can do. This is probably to do with the fact that it is often only an official component of degrees which include language. It seems the feeling is that it is not important for students of other subjects (I would disagree strongly…!), but also that if they can’t speak a foreign language, there would be nowhere they could go an study/live/work anyway. This may have been true a few decades ago, but nowadays the options for studying in English at foreign universities, or working for an international company based abroad are so numerous, that being a monolingual English speaker is no longer a reason not to benefit from the adventure of a semester/year abroad as a student. And who knows… you might (wonder of wonders!) even learn some of the foreign language while you’re there!!

 

Hurry to get finished

Even if going abroad were on students’ radar, I have the impression that many would view it as ‘wasting time’ when they should getting finished with their studies. Maybe it’s the expensive tuition fees, maybe it’s societal pressure, but students in the UK tend to view ‘doing a degree’ as a compact three-year pursuit, after which they should hurry up and get a ‘real’ job and start contributing properly to society. In other countries, where the tertiary education systems are more flexible, for example Germany, students study for longer, spend time becoming experts in their subjects and maybe taking a few seminars in related subjects voluntarily. Many of them work (in ‘real’ jobs) alongside their studies, spend some time studying/working abroad (yes, even those who don’t study languages!), and graduate in their mid-twenties having eeked every last drop of possible enriching experience out of their time as a student. Don’t get me wrong, there are downsides to this approach, too, but the point is that maybe students at British universities need to be made aware that there is anothe rpath, and that adding on just one little year to their studies is actually not the end of the world, and if they do something worthwhile during that time then it could be a real boost for their self-deevelopment and their CV as a graduate.

The aim of this post was to list reasons that have occurred to me whilst trying to explain this anti-year-abroad mentality that seems to be widespread among British students/universities. Perhaps readers have other ideas? I would be very interseted in hearing them  – please write in the comments section below! And once we’ve started to understand the reasons, I would say the next step is trying to do something about them!  How can we encourage British students to join the international academic exchange and adventure of spending time abroad?? Answers on a postcard, please!

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