Can bringing together student mobility and widening participation benefit students and higher education providers?

​This week Universities UK International (UUKi) holds the UK launch of its toolkit for Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility. This provides a good opportunity to assess challenges facing higher education institutions on the two agendas and to look at how they could be more closely linked.

Outward student mobility in the UK covers over 170 countries. Nonetheless, the student mobility agenda has understandably been dominated recently by the uncertainties of the landscape post Brexit. Access to Erasmus+ successor programmes, future visa issues for students taking up work placements across the EU, and a general worry about future sector capacity to support mobility, much of which has grown up around European links, are all cause for concern. 

This takes place at a time when there is a shift in UK government policy on social mobility. 'Success' in widening participation is no longer 'just about access' but includes retention, engagement, academic performance, success in the job market and pull through into postgraduate study. This policy resonates with the existing approach of many institutions although now there is increasing pressure to demonstrate how this agenda is being achieved.

The Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility project is funded and supported by the European Commission and reflects two priorities of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA): mobility and employability. The EHEA (a pan-European grouping of 48 Countries that the UK thankfully does not have to leave post Brexit!) has the ambitious goal of increasing mobility to 20% by 2020. Sadly, the reality is that students from non-traditional backgrounds in most countries are much less likely, or are unable, to take up mobility opportunities. There has recently been a shift in focus in many countries in the EHEA to understand how underrepresented groups can be encouraged to access mobility opportunities.

In the UK, the UUK Social Mobility Advisory Group has identified that disadvantaged students are much less likely than their peers to participate in any opportunities outside of the curriculum. Rectifying this situation is important not only on grounds of equity but because research and experience show that students grow in confidence and skills after being part of a mobility programme. There is a growing body of evidence that the opportunity to study and undertake work placements internationally improve not only students' language ability but also strengthen soft skills and enhance inter-cultural understanding. It also develops resilience, self-reliance and 'global knowhow'.

Employers are increasingly recognising the importance of 'soft-skills'. A report on Hidden Competencies by the Finnish Centre for International Mobility and Demos Helsinki makes the case that transnational learning produces the kind of competencies the labour market needs to face future challenges successfully. There is a small but growing body of research in the UK that demonstrates the link between a placement or study overseas and employability skills. UUK International's Gone International: Mobility Works report found that students from a disadvantaged background who were mobile during their degree earned an average of 6.1% more than their non-mobile peers.

The first part of the Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility project drilled down more deeply into the data for five disadvantaged and underrepresented groups – students from low socio-economic groups; students from low-participation neighbourhoods; black and minority ethnic students; students with a disability and students who are care leavers – to identify patterns. The preliminary headline findings confirm that students from more advantaged backgrounds were 65% more likely to engage in outward mobility than their disadvantaged peers. On all counts the target groups are underrepresented in mobility and students present in more than one group unsurprisingly have an even lower likelihood of participating in mobility schemes. The evidence suggests that mobility for work experience was more attractive in the target groups than in the general student population.


The second part of the project focussed on institutional good practice that can provide useful learning points for the rest of the sector. These included the importance of institutional leadership and a positive discourse about the advantages of mobility, a 'whole university' approach with collaboration across the professional services and academic advisers, the introduction of short-term mobility programmes, intercultural competency modules, ambassador programmes, mentoring schemes and funds to address financial barriers. These findings are reflected in UUKi's toolkit for higher education institutions.


Social, economic, demographic, institutional and cultural factors are obviously hard to overcome but the evidence from the project is that both concerted action and small steps have been successful in changing trends.

While there is a growing salience of employability and mobility for Governments and higher education institutions, these two areas are not always linked together in the minds of staff, students, employers or policy makers. However, improving widening participation mobility opportunities is important not just in terms of equity but also because it is central to a number of important current debates such as the value of the wider student experience, and how to articulate the advantages of mobility to students, their advisers and employers. Ultimately, bringing together widening participation and outward student mobility can provide solutions for universities, add value for employers and change the lives of our students.

For further information about this project, please contact Katherine Allinson.

Our team


Stanford University

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