Anne-Marie Graham, head of the UK Higher Education International Unit’s new Outward Student Mobility programme, talks to NIC MITCHELL about the aims and aspirations of the new government-backed initiative.

As someone who has benefited from study-abroad exchanges in France and Spain, Anne-Marie Graham speaks with authority about the value of schemes like European higher education Erasmus exchange programme.

For her, studying modern languages at Anglia Ruskin University – and particularly her time spent at the Universidad de Granada in southern Spain on an Erasmus exchange – was the gateway to a career in translation and market intelligence about languages and intercultural skills in higher education.

So she seems a perfect fit for her new role as the UK’s higher education champion for encouraging more British students to follow in her footsteps and spend some time studying abroad during their degree course at a UK university.

Mind, it is not a job for the faint-hearted, as the UK government has signed up to a Europe-wide goal of having one in five European higher education students spending at least three months studying in another country by 2020.

The 20:2020 target

The 20% target by 2020 doesn’t mean that one-in-five UK students are going to have to go abroad in seven years time, Anne-Marie points out. But it does mean we are going to have to improve our abysmal current record of having one of Europe’s lowest percentages of students having some experience of studying abroad.

While some countries boast that one in ten of their students already take advantage of schemes like the European Union’s Erasmus programme, the British don’t even really know how many home students are getting any experience abroad, with the best guesses being around 2%.

Anne-Marie realises one of her first challenges is to get hold of some real and accurate data rather than relying on ‘best guesswork’.

Why does it matter?

But why does it matter if we are only sending, say 30,000 British students abroad, when there are 370,000 foreign students studying in the UK? Doesn’t that give our ‘home’ students plenty of international experience?

Well, it might help but it is not enough, according to UK Universities and Science Minister David Willetts. (1)

He says: “Studying abroad offers students the chance to experience new cultures, understand different ways of working, and develop crucial language skills.

“Too few UK students currently go overseas, which is why we are investing in this programme. To compete in the global race the UK must create graduates with a global outlook that makes them more attractive to potential employers and benefits the wider economy.”

British bosses agree, with a recent CBI report saying 47% of employers are dissatisfied with British graduates’ international cultural awareness, and 55% complaining about their foreign language skills. (2)

Head of steam

So, there’s a head of steam already building up to support the new outward mobility initiative – the result of a report, Recommendations to support UK Outward Student Mobility, submitted to David Willetts by a working party led by Professor Colin Riordan, chair of the UK HE International Unit. I blogged about this last year. (3)

It was originally designed as the sector’s response to fears about the Erasmus fee-waiver in the light of tuition fees going up to £9,000 in England, but grew into looking at what we might learn from those more successful in getting their students to study abroad, like Germany.

Anne-Marie says: “The sector made it clear that a UK outward student mobility strategy was needed and David Willetts response was very positive, launching the new outward student mobility strategy on the same day as the government’s new international education industrial strategy Global Growth and Prosperity.” (4)

“Our strategy will be for the four nations of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland as well as England – and we’re already working closely with National Union of Students Scotland.”

Scotland Goes Global

Stacey Devine, NUS Scotland Women’s Officer, said: “We see a direct link between study abroad and employability and welcome this new national initiative. It supports our cross sector ‘Scotland Goes Global’ project, funded by the Scottish Government, to help address the low numbers of Scottish students studying abroad. Our project brings schools, employers and the tertiary education sector together for the first time to discuss the benefits of study abroad and has encouraged colleges and universities to create more accessible and better study abroad opportunities.

“The more exciting mobility opportunities there are for students, the brighter their future. And in a world where the employment market is increasingly competitive, this can only be a good thing.”

Core funding

So the new national mobility strategy isn’t starting from scratch and the UK government’s core funding, amounting to £150,000 for each of the first three years, is welcome.

A policy officer, Stephanie Smith, and the International Unit support Anne-Marie; but she’ll need to draw on the goodwill and backing from British universities to succeed and a more sustainable funding model to carry the work forward after 2016, especially up to the all important 2020.

Early priorities

Early phases will include:

• research to find out where the need is greatest and mapping the types of mobility already taking place

• exploring the impact of mobility on employability

• developing an online hub to provide the different information that students need about studying abroad in one location

• creating a practical tool-kit for university staff about mobility that takes account of the very diverse nature of UK higher education and helps staff overcome barriers to mobility

• finding out more about the barriers which may deter UK students from gaining international experience.

Raise awareness

“The main objective is to raise awareness of the opportunities that are out there and promote the benefits of outward mobility to students, academics, parents and other influencers”, says Anne-Marie.

As will targeting an earlier age-group by encouraging universities and others to get the message across to young people that going to university could also mean spending some time studying in another county if you want to gain the competitive edge.

Not just language students

“Up to now a large number of exchange students have been studying modern languages. But with exchanges to universities in countries in Scandinavia, for instance, you don’t need another language as many courses are taught in English, and English will be the common language among international students”, says Anne-Marie.

And while the main focus of the initiative will be on shorter exchanges such as those through the Erasmus and UK-China study programmes, the initiative will support all levels of study, including master’s degrees and other postgraduate study.

Let’s give it a warm welcome

Among the first to welcome the new initiative was Huw Morris, Academic Registrar at Swansea University and one of the UK’s leading advocates of staff and student mobility.

He’s impressed by the way Anne-Marie is already engaging with the HE community to identify best practice, and says: “This initiative is of critical importance to the UK HE sector since it will not only be the students who benefit from mobility periods overseas, but also the employers who will profit from the enhanced skills of such graduates.”

As for me…

As for me, I think it marks a real turning point from seeing student mobility as an inward affair of attracting more and more international students to British universities.

But whether it succeeds depends not just on British universities putting their money where their mouth was when Professor Riordan gathered his evidence, but also in working more closely with universities abroad.

From my own experience working for Linköping University in Sweden, I know they are interested in attracting more British students onto their exchange programmes and to their international master’s degrees taught in English.

So I say good luck to Anne-Marie and her small team and look forward to reporting on their successes.

Main photo: Ann-Marie Graham, head of the UK HE International Unit’s Outward Student Mobility programme


(1) UK HE International Unit news release Study overseas, UK students urged in new Government initiative (July 2013).

(2) My blog on Colin Riordan’s working party report on UK Outward Student Mobility (May 2012).

(3) The UK government’s new international education industrial strategy Global Growth and Prosperity (July 2013).