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Study, work, volunteer abroad: what can UK universities learn from Scottish Colleges?

​Dugald Craig, Chief Executive of Colleges Partnership, gives insight into the experiences of students at Scottish Colleges who study, work or volunteer abroad and what UK universities can learn from this. 

New College Lanarkshire student, Elise, is deaf, and travelled with a community support worker (CSW) to a placement at Le Garage Restaurant in Lyon. She was worried about communication, but did not need to be: ‘I quickly became independent and went charging off looking for my next task from Chef Stephanie, without my CSW’.

Travelling with the group to Lyon, was Frances.  Her Erasmus mobility experience at age 46 had ‘such an impact on me I returned to College to further my education, firstly HNC [Higher National Certificate], HND [Higher National Diploma] and then completed a degree’. Now working with the college Business Development Team, she relishes the opportunity to act as an accompanying person when she can.    

At Colleges Partnership we are in a great position to see the study, work or volunteer abroad (outward student mobility) work of our six member colleges. These are ERASMUS+ Charter holders, including one vocational education training (VET) Charter holder with the largest college based VET student mobility programme in the UK in 2018, offering over 300 places per year.  

There are core building blocks to all effective outward mobility: these include good planning, adequate resourcing, strong partnerships, committed staff and motivated students. 

As colleges we operate in an environment with a diverse student population, such as levels and types of study, barriers and life experience. This has shaped our approaches to outward mobility and for VET in particular.   

Taking the initiative in identifying and preparing for a mobility opportunity can be an important part of building motivation and self-reliance, but may not be a motivator for all.  

Colleges have skilled, enthusiastic learners with much to offer, however even the basic mechanics of organising travel/accommodation, care responsibilities or financial concerns are enough to prevent many from even considering outward mobility.  Colleges have developed inclusive and pro-active approaches to give students the best chance of accessing and succeeding in a mobility opportunity.  For some this may be their first independent trip abroad and the impact can be enormous. 

Outward mobility flows are usually small cohorts from selected class groups. They tend to travel and are accommodated as a group, but undertake individual work placements. Importantly, they develop and use the independent living skills needed to sustain a placement where they are working and living abroad. 

Mobilities usually last 2–3 weeks with carefully selected and trusted host institutions or placements.  Many students lack the confidence or have additional barriers such as care responsibilities, disabilities or part time employment that restricts their ability to sustain longer mobility activity. Our duty of care is particularly important for supported learning students or those under 18, where safeguarding is critical.  The buy in and commitment of college departmental staff is integral to the success of outward mobility.   

Some of the best practice components include:

  • extended period of preparation with a range of milestone events

  • parent meetings (understand practical and financial arrangements and placement details)

  • college scoping visits to host institutions/employers to agree placement/training/risk assessment

  • group organisation of travel and accommodation by the college 

  • checklists of items and travel documents to pack

  • development and use of student logbooks with daily diaries, work placement information capture of transversal skills, mobility evaluation

  • well defined role for accompanying persons and use of staff logbooks with practical arrangements and observation records and placement monitoring 

  • highly individualised help where required for more vulnerable students or groups

  • use of competition for places to boost motivation and attainment

  • celebration and communication of individual and collective success

In 2016–17, 32% of full-time students and 28% of higher education students in Scotland were from the most deprived areas.  14% of all students disclosed disability (dyslexia, most common). Securing outward mobility opportunities for these students demonstrates our commitment to inclusion and the embedded access agenda in colleges.  Colleges’ aspirations and commitment to growing outward mobility for both staff and students are expressed as part of their internationalisation and/or European engagement strategies. 

The impact on our students speaks for itself.

City of Glasgow College students on VET employer placements in Malta:

‘I’ve met some incredible people ….. I gained more work experience allowing me to build and enhance my skills.  With a job offer for the future, I may be back sooner than expected!'

'I've made life long memories.'

By Dugald Craig, Chief Executive of Colleges Partnership.

Key Contacts

Jo Hindle

Jo Hindle

Head of Media
Universities UK

Luke Lambert

Luke Lambert

Press and Social Media Officer
Universities UK

Clara Plackett

Clara Plackett

Senior Press and Social Media Officer
Universities UK


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