Participation in societies, sports clubs, student politics and volunteering are clear ways for students to develop their skillset and expand their networks. Study, work and volunteering abroad complement these activities by giving students a once in a lifetime opportunity to enjoy a unique and enriching global experience. Employability has become a key measure of graduate success and employers are looking for more developed skillsets to distinguish between candidates. This proves a challenge if students are engaging in fewer extracurricular activities during their studies.
Research shows that graduates who are mobile have better degree outcomes and better jobs. For disadvantaged groups, the difference in outcomes between mobile and non-mobile students are even more pronounced. However, the recently launched Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility report shows that while there is a trend of increased mobility across the sector, gaps in participation rates remain: mobility is still mostly undertaken by students from more advantaged backgrounds. Most concerning is that the participation gap is most acute for the sector's most disadvantaged groups.
Lower participation rates in mobility are often the result of financial, social, cultural and geographical barriers. For students with intersecting identities these barriers are compounded, resulting in even lower rates of mobility.
Part of the value of mobility is that students expand their skillset by taking on more responsibility and working through challenges. Academics who contributed to UUKi's perspectives research suggested that the challenge of participating in a mobility opportunity is "central to its value", going on to note that it "develops the student's ability to think independently and have confidence in their own intellectual capacity". These skills are attractive to employers and help students' personal development.
Not all students will be approaching mobility with the same level of ability to meet these challenges. Indeed, challenges encountered when studying or working abroad can be amplified when they are combined with the barriers in society many disadvantaged students face. For example, academic institutions in different countries can have varying levels of support for disabled students.
To ensure wide and open access to mobility, institutions should think about the needs of different groups and tailor their support to reflect those requirements. Key findings from today's report show that short-term mobility is more attractive to disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. University-led programmes and mobility options that include studying overseas are also popular. Offering more short-term study opportunities abroad could benefit students who face barriers to longer-term mobility including cost, responsibilities at home such as caring duties or paid work, and less flexibility in the length of their degree programme.
Placing student voices at the centre of efforts to widen participation in outward mobility is crucial. We should challenge some of our assumptions about what we perceive as barriers to mobility by holding focus groups, and by inviting student feedback following mobility experiences. A diverse programme of opportunities is essential if we are to address the current gaps in participation. Giving time and resources to consultation, engagement and feedback will ensure that we adapt our mobility offer in line with the emerging needs of the student body. We must create and promote inclusive experiences that are open to all students so that mobility doesn't contribute to the attainment gap, but instead works to close it.
Delivering outward student mobility isn't easy. International offices are required to develop, plan and deliver study abroad while providing pastoral support for students – while trying to increase mobility numbers often with little extra resource. But just because something's difficult doesn't mean we should shy away from it: the fact is mobility can fundamentally change lives for the better. Many of our institutions are already delivering programmes and support packages to enable disadvantaged students to be mobile. These examples of good practice will feature in our toolkit. UUKi's widening participation project will work hard to support universities to ensure that outward mobility programmes are open, supportive and attractive to all students.
UUKi is developing a toolkit for institutions which will include examples of good practice in supporting students onto mobility. If you are interested in submitting a case study for inclusion in the toolkit please contact Katherine Allinson directly.