The series provides essential intelligence for UK universities on the changing drivers, deterrents and motivators for study abroad. Alongside complementary research undertaken by Universities UK International (UUKi), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the European Commission, this research constitutes our main evidence base on the perceptions, barriers and benefits to study abroad.
This year's insightful report provoked a flurry of articles and interest in how findings compare with previous years. One statistic in particular caught attention, with articles in Timers Higher Education and the Telegraph honing-in on the percentage of students reporting an active interest in study abroad. In 2017, this percentage is 18%, down from 34% in 2015.
However, the focus on this single statistic detracts from some important messages in the report; messages that can help inform our collective efforts to boost outward student mobility.
Political and economic shocks, such as the vote to leave the EU and a weak pound, and an increased awareness of the threat of terrorism abroad represent new challenges for internationalism. But, the overall sense in Broadening Horizons 2017 is of opportunity in the face of adversity: that students are still open to study abroad in turbulent times.
The focus on the 18%, while understandable, needs to be set in context. The percentage of 'interested' students from previous years has seen significant variance year-on-year. In 2013 it was 20%, in 2014 it was 37%, and in 2015 it was 34%.
Even within a changed geo-political context, the 2017 report finds this percentage only falling back to around 2013 levels, meaning that one in five UK students is still actively interested in studying abroad. Given that only one in fifteen UK students currently pursues outward mobility in any form, this suggests there are a considerable number of students who are convinced of the benefits, but who aren't making it through the process and onto the plane.
Moreover, of the 82% of students who report they are 'not interested' or 'unsure' about study abroad, 88% say they could be convinced. Clearly, minds are not made up, and with the right messaging, many more students could join the 18%.
The report gives important pointers about how to reach potential mobile students. Information on funding and language training traditionally rate as key motivators for students considering an experience abroad. This year, 'evidence it will help my job prospects' was added to the mix. Students felt messaging around the benefits of mobility weren't getting through, and wanted more evidence of the link between mobility and increased employability. Communicating the value that mobility can have on their future is important for a cohort that is carefully weighing up the opportunity costs of time, money and academic credit of undertaking study abroad during university.
Students were also citing awareness of established partnerships at their home institutions as motivators for study abroad. Again, these findings link back to messaging: reassuring students of the quality of tried and tested international partners.
The report also emphasised the importance of messaging on Brexit. Anecdotally we have heard universities are seeing an increase in demand this year for the Erasmus+ programme: students, perhaps, perceiving it as their 'last chance' to participate. However, the report (released before the Brexit agreement was reached on continued participation in the programme to 2020) also found students' feeling confused about what the UK's departure from the EU will mean for their international placements. This finding underlines the importance of the Government's guarantee in the case of a 'no deal' and their confirmation that the UK will stay in the Erasmus+ programme until 2020 – as well as ensuring these messages are getting through to students.
Ironically, because this is also an important pull for international students coming into the country, this year's report found that students' satisfaction with their life and education in the UK were key barriers to study abroad, citing the quality of higher education in the UK, being 'happy' in this country and separation from family and friends, as deterrents. Again, linking to messaging on the value that mobility can have for students' future in the UK is essential.
The findings from Broadening Horizons 2017 underline how important and timely UUKi's new outward student mobility campaign, Go International: Stand Out, is. They demonstrate that we, as a sector, are on track with our key messages. Through a promotional campaign, the initiative aims to raise outward student mobility up the higher education, and political agenda, by communicating the value of mobility for individuals, institutions and the country as a whole.
In my opinion, Broadening Horizons 2017 paints a positive picture. Students at university now are savvy – they are weighing up a variety of factors in considering whether to go abroad during their studies, and they want to be informed. Both individually and through the Go International: Stand Out campaign, universities are meeting this challenge head on.