Much to welcome in a recent UK report recommending ways to encourage more Outward Student Mobility by British students, says De la Cour Communications founder Nic Mitchell.

When I set up De la Cour Communications after leaving the relative safety of a full-time comms job in a British university last year, my idea was to focus on helping European universities talk to UK stakeholders, especially students and those who advise them.

My reasoning was that if the UK was to end of its ‘love-hate’ relationship with our European partners it would need more British students to go abroad to study and absorb foreign cultures.

No, I am not simply a starry-eyed pro-Euro Nut, but a realist in understanding that we sink or swim together with the fortunes of our nearest neighbours as well as our pals across the Atlantic.

So, imagine my surprise and delight at a recent report entitled ‘Recommendations to support UK Outward Student Mobility’ submitted to the British Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, by a working party led by Professor Colin Riordan, chair of the UK HE International Unit.

The report, made public in May, generated some coverage in the likes of the Times Higher Education, which run its piece under the headline ‘Willetts pledges partial grant to encourage overseas study’. But there is actually a lot more substance to the findings. If implemented, it could lead to a sea-change in the advice and guidance given to British students about studying abroad for, at least, part of their degree.

For what started out as a response to concerns about future funding of the Erasmus fee waiver when tuition fees rocket in September widened in its scope and ended up recommending a national UK strategy to encourage more outward student mobility.

And, not a moment too soon in my opinion! The in-balance between inward and outward student mobility is striking, with the British Council ‘estimating’ in 2010 that while 33,000 UK students were studying abroad, 370,000 foreign students were studying in the UK. The British Council had to ‘estimate’ because while figures for internationals students coming into the UK are closely monitored and bring joy to UK university finance directors, data for outward student mobility is much less clear.

But assuming the figures are right, it means that less than 2% of British students are gaining an international dimension to their higher education and that Great Britain has a mountain to climb to get anywhere the European Higher Education Area target of 20% of European students spending at least three studying in another country by 2020.

So, what is to be done?

 Well, for one thing we need a more ‘comprehensive collection’ of mobility data at national level. It appears that Erasmus is the only area where there are reliable statistics; and they show the UK trailing with just under 12,000 outgoing UK Erasmus students in 2009/10, compared with 31,158 from Spain, 30,213 from France, and 28,854 from Germany.

And, it seems the Germans have already invented the ideal model for getting more of their home-grown students to venture abroad.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) already provides support for outbound student mobility – to the tune of €72million in 2010. German students are supported by a fully portable needs-based maintenance funding scheme (BAföG) provided by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The maintenance grants and loans are available at undergraduate and master’s level for full degree study at universities inside the EU as well as for a study abroad period of a maximum of 12 months in countries outside the EU.

And it seems to be working, with the latest figures (for 2010) showing 30,586 BAfög-supported outbound students in 2010, up from 18,453 students in 2008.

Oh! to have such precise figures for the UK!

The report from Professor Riordan’s group makes a number of other recommendations, including greater flexibility in the curriculum to make it easier for students to spend time abroad during their studies.

It also wants ‘stronger promotion of international awareness’ prior to university at school level. “Promoting student mobility will lead to graduates who are better educated, more well-rounded and more employable global citizens”, the report argues.

One concrete way of helping promote study abroad options ‘would be to include foreign HE providers on UCAS applications’. That’s quite a radical proposal, but it would really help bring the overseas alternative to the fore.

The report suggests the two main obstacles to student mobility for British students are ‘financial constraints’ and ‘linguistic barriers’ – and fears that the increase in home tuition fees might put students off doing an extra year abroad.

So, we need something along the lines of the support offered by DAAD to German students if we are ever to get near the 20% target by 2020.

The one weakness in an otherwise uplifting report from Professor Riordan and his team was the scant mention of postgraduate students being encouraged to go abroad for their master’s degrees.

I know master’s programmes can often last for two years in other European countries, but more and more are being taught in English – 4,500 at a recent count by MastersPortal. So, that overcomes the linguistic barrier, although to be fully understood in the global markets we really should learn foreign languages properly.

As for the financial hurdle, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries do NOT charge British and other EU students any tuition fees for their undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

And spending an extra year abroad would give British students more time to familiarise themselves with different cultures – and the opportunity to learn a foreign language even if their course is taught in English.

* To read Professor Riordan’s group’s 20-page report.

Main photo: From Universities UK International