Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Are we giving our students the right information to help them study abroad?

Studies and statistics[1] often suggest that UK students are more inward looking than their European counterparts, and that our numbers for outward mobility are much lower than the rest of the continent. A recent study by the British Council of over 10,000 students in the UK and US explores the reasons for this comparative lack of mobility and gives us some food for thought when formulating strategies to increase outward student mobility from the UK.

With US and UK universities featuring heavily in the world’s top ranking institutions, there are obvious reasons why students may want to stay at home to study. But students are clearly not making their decision on rankings alone. The desire to explore other cultures (66% of US students) and live overseas (44% of UK students) also factors in the decision-making process, which could explain why seven of the top ten study abroad destinations are in non-English speaking countries. While the British Academy’s recent State of the Nation report for languages suggests we are in a ‘vicious circle of monolingualism’, the British Council’s research indicates that it’s not the lack of language ability that is preventing our students from studying overseas, as 82% of the UK students who were considering studying abroad said they felt confident in a foreign language. US students are more likely to quote language skills as a barrier to studying abroad.

Nonetheless, US students are more likely to consider studying overseas than UK students. In both groups, those that do consider study abroad are most likely to consider it in an English speaking country. UK students favour the US as their preferred study abroad destination (29%) while 22% of US students would prefer to study in the UK. It’s unlikely that confidence in a foreign language is a factor for these individuals.

Cost is another obvious motivation, with 53% and 72% of UK and US students respectively naming this as a factor in their decision-making. Surprisingly, only 27% of UK students who responded blamed increased tuition fees as a reason for deciding to study abroad.

The research suggests that the most significant barrier is the lack of information. Respondents suggest that there is a real gap in the resources available to them in this area, with 30% of students in the UK reporting that they had to work really hard to find any information. The inability to source the information they need means that many students lack the confidence to make the leap and study abroad. Only 24% of UK students, and just 22% of their US counterparts, felt they had the information to make a decision. The type of information they might need to make a decision included data on financial support, language requirements and the application process for overseas study programmes. In this new era of student choice, this perceived information gap is a real concern for educational institutions.

Given that language take-up is diminishing in the UK[2] and the recent Eurobarometer survey into second language ability[3] indicates that the majority of UK students lack confidence in a second language, it would be useful to explore the demographics of the research respondents in greater detail. The research also includes some information linking study abroad to aspiration, which could benefit from further investigation.

Despite raising some new questions, there are nevertheless some interesting data in this fascinating report. It highlights several areas for development in terms of advice and guidance for students considering overseas education. More importantly, it confirms that we still have some work to do to stimulate outward mobility in the wider UK student population.

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/education/erasmus/doc/stat/table1.pdf
[2] http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/our_research/evidence_for_government/national_policy_reforms/language_trends_survey.aspx
[3] http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

New evidence of the demand for languages in the labour market

With National Careers Week approaching, many organisations are preparing events and activities to promote careers guidance and job opportunities. For those who are preparing a talk or an event related to languages, a newly published report from the British Academy can provide them with fresh evidence of the career benefits of speaking or learning a second language.

Languages: the State of the Nation, published on February 14 2012, outlines the demand for languages in the UK. It also looks at the UK’s current capacity for language skills and highlights some potentially worrying gaps in supply. The report concludes that there is significant evidence that UK is experiencing a ‘growing deficit in foreign language skills’. More specifically, research indicates that there is a considerable demand for languages that cannot be readily accessed in the UK education system. This indicates that the gap between supply and demand is likely to continue, if not widen, in the near future.

The employer research and labour market intelligence that figures in the report shows that there is a need for a wide range of languages at all levels of the workforce and in most sectors. About half of the jobs reviewed for the research requested French, Spanish or German, demonstrating that the languages we teach are by no means as useless as the various media stories about learning Mandarin instead of French would have us believe. Scandinavian languages were also commonly requested. In fact, over 96% of job advertisements reviewed by the research requested skills in a European language. Nevertheless, the range of languages requested by employers in the research indicates that we should add more languages to our educational portfolio and, more importantly, develop and hone the existing language skills of UK schoolchildren.

From a careers perspective, there is some compelling evidence. Labour market intelligence shows that the Finance, IT, Education, Marketing/PR and Media sectors advertised the highest number of roles requiring or preferring language skills. Data taken from National Employers Skills Surveys highlights the percentage of vacancies that remain unfilled due to lack of language skills, including 27% of administrative and clerical roles in 2011. And it’s not just business and the corporate world that require language skills - the report notes that the public sector also advertised for varied language skills.

With the qualitative and quantitative evidence that the State of the Nation report provides, careers guidance professionals, parents and other individuals that influence the decisions of young people at options time and other points throughout their education will be able to offer new and relevant data with regard to languages and language learning. During National Careers Week, if you’re wondering why or how to promote languages?’, why not start with the British Academy’s latest evidence?