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Partnership works both ways

27 January 2014

By Anne Marie Graham, Head of Outward Mobility Programme, UK HE International Unit.

The Prime Ministerial delegation to China has just returned, and universities will be reassured by David Cameron's warm welcoming of Chinese students and his repeated assurances that there is no limit on the number of Chinese students who can study here in the UK.

But perhaps he should have also reminded students back home that there is no limit on the number of our own students who can choose to study abroad as part of their degree courses.

The fact of the matter is that no partnership works only one way and we have a great deal to gain from a much closer, two-way relationship with China, both in terms of research and innovation but also in terms of our students studying and working over there, gaining crucial skills and experience to bring back home.

Evidence shows again and again that graduates with international experience are far more likely to be snapped up by employers than those without. International experience helps students in many ways: from a career perspective it brings important skills and experience - not to mention language skills - that are invaluable to employers; and on a wider level, all international experience improves understand of different cultures and helps us become better global citizens.

Which is why a new Government-funded initiative to promote student mobility in higher education is so important. The UK Higher Education International Unit's UK Strategy on Outward Mobility, which is being launched today by Rt HonDavid Willetts, Secretary of State for Universities and Science, aims to increase the proportion of students who access some form of international experience during their undergraduate or postgraduate study. It's not just about the year abroad, it's about promoting and stimulating a range of international experiences, including summer schools, volunteering in vacation time, to overseas work placements. Students will learn new skills, new languages, and forge relationships that will hopefully continue for many years; employers will benefit from graduates with an international outlook.

We believe that outward student mobility is essential if UK higher education is to develop graduates who are equipped to compete on the global labour market, and provide employers with a culturally agile workforce that can promote UK business and diplomatic interests worldwide. It also enhances the international profile of UK higher education, as students on overseas placements are excellent ambassadors for UK institutions and academic programmes.

Whether it is a year abroad on study or work placement, a short-term study visit or a virtual mobility project, institutions offer a range of mobility opportunities to their students. But there are too many barriers in place. Internal, institutional, barriers with regard to credit recognition and quality assurance of placements are still too common; language barriers can prevent students from studying overseas; and financial barriers including the portability of loans can also put students off.

There are positive signs. Within Europe, there has been a steady increase in the number of UK students participating in the European Union's (EU) Erasmus mobility programme, in particular those undertaking work placements. Statistics published in 2013 report the highest number of participants from the UK since the programme was introduced in 1987.

But we need to do more. The UK Higher Education International Unit (IU) will bring together higher education institutions, devolved administrations, sector organisations, employers and professional bodies to implement the UK Strategy on Outward Mobility, and we want to encourage far more students to take advantages of the opportunities on offer, building real capability in the higher education sector and removing as many of the barriers as possible.

We hope and expect that in future, UK Delegations to China will include a more substantial number of delegates who have lived, studied and worked there. Partnership indeed.

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