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