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Why do British Students actually go abroad for their Bachelor’s degree?

Following the recent publication of the British Council’s third annual Broadening Horizons survey of UK and US students’ attitude to international higher education, we thought we would take a look at what British students who are actually abroad say about their decision.

Surveys of this type usually end up focusing on those who have expressed an interest in going abroad but may not end up going (a problem we face with our main annual survey), or they concentrate on students who have typically taken their third year abroad and are thus full of language students to the detriment of other voices.

In response to this we decided to summarise the reasons British students go abroad as communicated to us in the testimonials on our websites. This means the results do not follow any standard survey methodology but we feel they are highly illuminating when finding out why typical British students choose to study abroad for their full degree. It is our belief that these reasons, while certainly similar to those evinced by the British Council’s and others’ research, perhaps offer a more truthful picture of when full degree mobility is the appropriate response to the question of “Where should I go to university?”

With the main decision-making period for 2016 applicants just ahead of us, we hope that this snapshot will present useful information for any students wishing to follow in their footsteps.

About the survey

The survey is based on 40 testimonials gathered during the academic years 2013/14 and 2014/15. The majority of testimonials were completed by students during their first year at university. Around ¾ of respondents were at Dutch universities with the rest studying in France, Norway, USA, Singapore, Spain and Italy.

All respondents are in the process of completing their 3 or 4-year Bachelor’s degree at an international university. None of them is a languages student although many will be learning a new language as part of their studies. We have also ignored medical and dental students in this sampling because they typically reveal very different reasons for studying abroad, almost always connected with supply and demand and entry requirements.

We have paraphrased responses based on the answer to the question “Why did you choose to study abroad?” Students were given completed freedom to tell us whatever they felt was of importance and we made no further attempt to steer their responses. We will link to perhaps the best examples on our website to give further illustration.

 

The reasons British students give for studying abroad

“I want to explore new cultures.”

A sense of adventure drives 50% of our respondents to seek out education abroad. This result is almost identical to the findings of the British Council. There is no denying that an adventurous mind set is almost a prerequisite for studying abroad.

“It’s about money.”

40% of respondents mentioned financial considerations, mostly in terms of being cheaper to study abroad. Some were more motivated by the fear of student debt. Most respondents mentioned money as a secondary consideration eg. “…and it doesn’t hurt that it is also so much cheaper!”

“I already have international experience and want more.”

The 28% of respondents who mentioned this fall into three categories:

  • Dual Nationals or “British-In-Nationality-Only”
  • Brits whose families have lived abroad in the past
  • Recent GAP year returnees suddenly less keen on three years at a UK university

“Education abroad is of a higher quality.”

25% of students mentioned this but only 7.5% explicitly referred to rankings and league table positions. It is unclear how they arrive at such judgements but they are generally satisfied with their choice.

“The UK doesn’t offer the course content I want.”

20% of respondents believe that the course they want to study is offered better abroad. This is most often the case for law and business students who perceive an automatic benefit to cross-border knowledge. Liberal Arts and Sciences students also express this view.

Funnily enough, this reason doesn’t show up in any British Council research.

“The style of education on offer suits me better.”

Most often students refer to:

  • smaller class sizes,
  • better relationships with their tutors and lecturers,
  • more practical approaches to demonstrating learning.

“I want to learn in an international classroom.”

18% of respondents see the presence of students from all nationalities in the classroom as a major benefit. This suggests students are keen to engage with more than just the culture of their new home country.

“I want to stand out from the crowd when it comes to getting a job.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that this appears as a reason for going abroad, particularly when it is often presented as the strongest, rational reason for taking this step. Only 18% of respondents care enough to mention it once they are abroad, however.

“I have the option for further study abroad.”

15% of respondents see value in the ability to take part in an exchange and/or work placement in a third or even fourth country as part of their degree. One respondent in particular mentioned the flexibility to both study abroad and do an exchange as the main reason for not choosing a British university degree.

“I will become more independent and mature.”

10% of respondents mentioned the possibility for personal growth as result of studying abroad.

Other reasons given

 

We hope that this survey gives a good overview of why students actually go abroad. These students are typical of the growing number of British students who are at universities overseas. They have had to overcome the same obstacles that most international students encounter, specifically those relating to language, finance and the availability of accurate, impartial advice.

There is nothing special or different about internationally mobile students. We firmly believe that this is an opportunity for everyone. We hope that the reasons outlined above will help students decide for themselves if this is something they wish to pursue. Further, we hope that it will assist guidance professionals in identifying when studying abroad might be the right choice for a particular individual.

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What is the Point of 50% Targets for International Student Mobility?

 

Many policy initiatives in the area of international higher education aim to achieve outbound mobility for 50% of all students. The German government has announced a target of 50% of its local students to take part in international education and here in the UK, many universities have announced similar targets, most notably De Montfort University. While it is encouraging to note that such initiatives are usually backed by additional financial support for students (or an acknowledgment that it will be necessary to achieve their goals) there are still a number of problems involved in aiming for such an arbitrary target.

Firstly, what constitutes international experience and is it meaningful in an educational context? To reach this target it will be natural to include all manner of international experience; DMU mentions anything from a four-week language course upwards. While there is almost certainly a benefit to any prolonged period of time abroad, is it sensible to think that this will lead to a greater appreciation of life in another country or indeed anything beyond a cursory evaluation of another culture? The same argument can also apply to a full academic year abroad if it does not allow students to integrate fully into the life of a host university or company, in the case of work experience. For an individual university there is also the issue of managing sufficient partnerships to avoid recreating its own classrooms on foreign soil. In the case of DMU the ultimate plan is to send 11,000 students abroad; this will require a huge number of institutional partners. These arguments are well-known and well-rehearsed amongst professionals in the field of international higher education so does this mean that within every 50% target there is a tacit agreement about how much should be made up of students who go for a full year or more, or those who go for less than a month and how many should go to any one partner university at any one time?

Also, those students who go fully international for their education do not tend to show up in any recorded statistics and can fall between the cracks if they are not registered with an educational institution in their own country and/or receiving government financial support. It could therefore be that the amount of students internationally mobile lies somewhere between 0 and 100% of young people not in domestic higher education or otherwise accounted for.

Secondly, why 50%? Which half of the student population would not benefit from international higher education or couldn’t be persuaded to spend some time abroad? The poorest? The most male?

We spend a huge amount of time advising young people in the United Kingdom on the possibility of studying abroad for all or part of their undergraduate study. While there is undoubtedly a growth in interest and willingness to consider studying abroad I doubt we could say that 50% of young people are enthused by this possibility. Would it not be better to focus on those students who are actually interested in going abroad and providing them with suitable options and/or financial support? A 50% target can only be the result of a governmental or institutional perspective, one that is prescriptive in its attitude to students’ needs. If international higher education is a genuinely good thing, and I firmly believe it is, shouldn’t we just be focussing on helping those students who show an interest rather than shoehorning as many people as necessary into meeting an arbitrary target? If higher education wishes to address an issue relating to international student mobility wouldn’t it be better to target this:

UniSouthDenmark @UniSouthDenmark:
Why this difference? Females account for 63.5% of all people who study abroad while males 36.5%

230614 Uni of Denmark stat

 

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