When I started blogging about the benefits of student mobility across national borders and the need to internationalise European universities in 2012, I was struck by how far behind the UK was in some areas, especially outward student mobility.
Then, like now, the loudest voices in higher education were prioritising incoming (non-EU) international student recruitment. The big difference now is that current UK Prime Minister Theresa May seems the only person in Britain who doesn’t see the advantage of having thousands of people from around the world wanting to pay good money to stay and study at the UK’s amazing selection of universities.
But that’s a subject for a different kind of blog.
Why I blog about studying abroad
What I want to focus on here, and what got me blogging in the first place, is the need to encourage more British students to venture abroad to study or gain some work experience – even if for just a few weeks or months.
Students like Alexandra Rhian Roberts from the South Wales Valleys. She was the first in the family to go to university and spent a semester in California during her degree. See my blog ‘Studying abroad was life changing for Alexandra’
So it is not just about more students going abroad, but the need to widen the range of students from less affluent backgrounds studying or working abroad. This aspiration got a fresh boost in a new report, Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility, produced this summer by Universities UK International (UUKi) with support from the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme and the UK Department for Education.
I wrote about what the report said on how the UK might achieve greater study abroad diversity for University World News in a feature article headlined ‘Shorter periods abroad could widen student mobility’ (18 August 2017). The article also compared UK outward student mobility with the situation in Germany, where 25% of its students go abroad during their studies compared with 6.6% first-degree British students.
The UUKi study highlighted the sharp variation in student mobility participation rates between different socio-economic groups, with UK students from a ‘higher managerial and professional occupation’ family background eight times more likely to go abroad while studying than students from the lowest socio-economic classification.
Could mobility have tilted the balance in Brexit vote?
It also spelt out all the usual advantages of a ‘go abroad’ experience at university on future job prospects and earnings, but I also wonder what would have happened if we had hundreds of thousands of Brits studying or working overseas during their degree.
Could it have tilted the balance in the EU referendum?
Perhaps, just perhaps, we could have avoided the rather painful and messy divorce proceedings around Brexit if more young people had seen the benefits of living, studying or working abroad and turned out to vote in the referendum.
But, hey, I did try to raise the alarm bells!
Back in May 2012, I blogged about whether there was a conspiracy of silence by British higher education leaders in all things European.
Back then, apart from enthusiasts in the UK HE International Unit (now UUKi), few questioned the lack of British interest in the ‘Bologna Process’ – the initiative started in 1999 by European government ministers to encourage greater staff and student mobility and create a European Higher Education Area complete with easy credit transfer and that kind of thing.
English HE policy class ‘Eurosceptic to the core’
Among the rare prophets at the time was Peter Scott, who wrote in The Guardian ‘The Bologna process has been key to European universities’ success (April 30, 2012). He said that with one or two honourable exceptions the English higher education policy class were ‘Eurosceptic to the core’.
A bit strong? Perhaps!
But I well remember one vice-chancellor half-joking at a Universities UK summit back in those pre-Brexit days that the English higher education approach to Europe was to fly over it on the way to recruiting students in India and China.
Bucharest summit gives new spur to 20% target
The fresh spur to encouraging more European staff and student mobility – and what really converted me to support the cause – was the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference in Bucharest at the end of April 2012. See a collection of my early blogs ‘Remember the student mobility Bucharest summit’.
The goal of 20% of European students spending at least three months studying in another country by 2020 was actually agreed at an earlier Bologna summit, when ministers met in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve in 2009, but the Bucharest gathering gave the target something of a rocket boost.
I set myself up as a communication consultant around this time and my first consultancy project was to try to help Linköping University in Sweden attract more international students to its English-language International master’s degrees.
The Swedes weren’t just after UK students, of course, but they would have liked more than the handful they were attracting. I had to warn them it would be a tough challenge.
Few UK universities prioritised Europe
It didn’t help that only a few British universities seemed genuinely keen to prioritise links with Europe. The University of Kent stands out as an exception!
I had come up against this disinterest in what was happening across the North Sea and English Channel during my ten years as the UK representative on the Steering Committee of the European Universities PR & Information Officers’ association (EUPRIO).
I tried (often in vain) to interest colleagues my colleagues in the public relations and communication departments of UK universities in what was happening in European higher education.
And now that we are preparing to leave the European Union it may be even harder to retain the links we have, especially if a compromise isn’t reached during the Brexit negotiations on the UK’s future participation in the European Commission’s Erasmus+ mobility programme and its successor after 2020.
But at least the shock of the Brexit result has shaken up the ‘chillaxing’ approach to Europe among many in the UK higher education establishment, which now realises that lucrative European Union research money may be lost from a ‘hard Brexit’ along with Erasmus+ supported mobility programmes.
British university leaders were warned in the months leading up to the UK European referendum not to be complacent, with Professor
Philippe Moreillon, vice rector of research and international relations at the University of Lausanne, telling the first of a series of referendum debates organised by Universities UK in early 2016 that the Swiss had voted narrowly to restrict free movement from other European countries after universities failed to convince young people to vote.
He urged UK vice-chancellors to ‘get out on the streets’ to defend UK membership of the European Union, saying their own referendum had landed Swiss universities in all sorts of bother, including being kicked-out of both Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. See my blog ‘Swiss lessons for UK universities’ referendum campaign’ (9 March 216).
Despite this, and other, warnings, only a few UK universities appeared to have really made a decent attempt to maximise the youth vote in the run to the EU referendum.
And so, like Switzerland, it looks like we may have to spend a good few years mending relations and relying on one-to-one partnerships to continue student mobility exchanges with fellow European universities.
But, with Universities UK International promising a ‘toolkit’ in November or December to encourage British universities to do more to widen student participation in studying and work experience abroad, it looks like student mobility is likely to rise up the agenda.
What form it takes remains to be seen, but shorter periods abroad may be part of the answer to broadening the range of students taking part, and perhaps future mobility will look to Canada and other countries further afield if Brexit makes exchanges with European universities prove more tricky in the future.
Main photo: Former British Prime Minister, Theresa May
See my earlier blogs
What Brexit means for European universities (2 April, 2017)
Can UK universities remain European after Brexit? (29 January, 2017)
European universities urged to stick together after Brexit (30 June, 2016)