Why UK higher education sector must direct its energy to send our students abroad

Inward mobility is the great urgent theme of our time. We call it migration and it shapes our politics, changes how we manage our borders, underpins our economies and changes our culture. At the national and institutional levels, we are determined to plan for it, even if our plans may sometimes seem rather extraordinary.

By contrast, outward mobility is not an urgent theme, although it is the reflection of inward mobility and makes an important contribution to international competitiveness. According to the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility, just 6% of university students travel abroad as part of their degree. Comparative figures are hard to come by for other countries, but we know the UK receives twice as many Erasmus students as we send abroad. This compares to the aspirational Bologna Goal that 20% of all graduates should have spent a period of time studying or training abroad by 2020.

As institutions, we therefore face an interesting challenge. It is worth noting that the headline 6% conceals significant variance due to structural challenges within the sector. A large, multi-faculty institution may require all of its language students to study abroad, alongside interested students from highly transferable subjects. A small, specialist institution, although willing, may have to overcome barriers relating to semesterisation and lack of transferability.

This means the Bologna Goal represents a significant challenge. But we must not duck it. The sector’s energy in recruiting international students needs to be matched by its enterprise in encouraging our students to be international. For one thing, our openness to the world is part of our pitch to Government post-Brexit, as recognised by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox when he spoke this week to the Lords International Relations Committee.

It would certainly be worth the effort for our core mission. To rehearse the basic argument, students with some measure of outward mobility will do better at every key indicator in higher education, from attainment to employability. Other than family background, no other single indicator of achievement is quite as reliable. 

On that basis, outward mobility would play a key part in the pedagogy and international strategy of every institution. The strategic options are obvious. Some universities would select the best for outward mobility, as with the Fulbright Program. Some would have country or city focuses, others would require every student in particular categories to study abroad. An obvious category would be students from widening participation backgrounds -- disadvantaged and BAME students who are mobile are at an overwhelming advantage compared to non-mobile students from similar backgrounds.

Why does this matter now? Because as a sector we now need a plan for two geographies -- Europe and the Rest of the World.

Perhaps because we take it for granted, we don’t realise how difficult life would be if continued access to Erasmus+ is not secured following Brexit. As institutions, our outward mobility relies on Erasmus+: 46% of all UK mobilities in 2014–15 were facilitated through this programme. Erasmus+ is an extraordinarily well-designed outward mobility scheme. Every legal and academic barrier removed across a bloc of 28 countries, and with funding for students participating in it. 

Reconstructing this would be painful but necessary in order to continue our students’ access to world-leading universities. The alternative is grim. Subjects including languages would disproportionately suffer if we left Erasmus+ with no replacement. And yet I sense limited impetus to secure continued access to Erasmus+ in institutional lobbying around Brexit.

Meanwhile, it is strikingly unbusiness-like that higher education has so little interest in mobility to the Rest of the World, and is so reliant on Europe. This must now represent an unacceptable level of risk for the sector in our preparation for Brexit. Single-institution bilateral deals are not sustainable, particularly as it can take up to a year to negotiate a single exchange for one student with an institution outside the EU. In this new, risky environment, we cannot afford this bespoke approach. We need to act together, with a consensus on which countries and regions to prioritise. 

The sector truly has a long way to go if it is to meet the challenge of the next years. It will take a long time to establish strategic international mobility partnerships with a similar level of quality assurance, learning agreements and protections as in Erasmus+. It will take even longer if we also need to replace our access to Europe. We need to decide what mobility is for, then achieve it with a true sense of urgency, working together.

Our team


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