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UK students trailing EU peers on take up of Erasmus exchanges

We’re not planning to miss out. ISCTE - Instituto Universitário de Lisboa , CC BY-NC-ND

The Erasmus+ programme, which aims to boost the number of students and staff studying and working abroad across the European Union, started on January 1 2014. It will provide €14bn to 33 countries over the next seven years.

The money will be used to fund students and staff to undertake education and training opportunities overseas, with an estimated €940m set to go to the UK.

With almost 5m people across Europe expected to take part in Erasmus+ between 2014 and 2020 (double the number of those who currently participate in the programme) the move to the new programme presents a good opportunity to ask why Erasmus matters, and whether UK students advantage of it enough.

Although the UK saw steady increases in the number of students who took part in the EU’s former Erasmus scheme, it is still behind key competitors. France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain all send out more students, and are closer to hitting the European Higher Education Area’s target of 20% student mobility by 2020.

Outgoing UK Erasmus Student Mobility 2007-2012. UK International Unit

In 2011-2012, only 13,662 UK students participated in the Erasmus scheme in either study or work placements, compared to Spain with 39,545 students, Germany with 33,363 and France with 33,269. While the UK receives more than twice the number of students it sends abroad, France sends 4,305 more students (33,269) than it receives (28,964).

Erasmus student mobility in selected countries (2011/12) British Council

Higher education institutions are increasingly highlighting the role of overseas experience in the acquisition of skills for life and work. Testimonials from students who have participated in Erasmus describe the experience as life changing, offering them the chance to experience new cultures, understand different ways of working and to grow in independence and confidence.

Students tell us that time spent proving yourself overseas is a key way in which to boost job prospects in a competitive market. Employers also value the ability Erasmus students have to work with people from other cultures in addition to their formal qualifications.

In recognition of this, a 2011 report by the Council for Industry and Higher Education’s (now National Centre for Universities and Business), Global Graduates into Global Leaders, urged graduates seeking work to develop “global employability skills” to help them succeed in what is now an increasingly competitive international marketplace.

We know that employers – whether local, national or multinational – want graduates who can bring something “over and above” core graduate skills. We shouldn’t forget that student mobility can also influence more than careers – with the British Council website claiming that 1 in 10 students met their partners during an Erasmus exchange.

One of the best aspects of the previous Erasmus scheme – the monthly grant it provided to students to help fund the cost of living overseas – is set to continue. Additionally, Erasmus+, will give students a grant to study or work in a partner country which is not part of the Erasmus programme for the first time, as well as a Masters loan scheme to help fund students who want to take up post-graduate study overseas.

UK students will also benefit from a fee cap that will offer a reduction of up to 85% in their tuition fees. Although from the next academic year, universities can now charge up to 15% of the full fee for the year abroad, many may still waive this fee at their discretion.

New national strategy

It’s not just employers who recognise the value of student mobility, the government does too. In 2012, minister of state for universities David Willetts asked the UK Higher Education International Unit to develop and implement a new strategy to promote outward mobility. It was published in December 2013.

Anne Marie Graham, who leads the strategy at the International Unit said: “It will help universities raise awareness of the opportunities that are out there and provide evidence of the benefits of mobility to students, academics, parents and other influencers.”

A part of this awareness-raising is dispelling the notion that studying abroad is just for linguists. The Erasmus+ scheme is open to all students and a key priority is to promote mobility amongst groups which have been under represented, including health sciences and health care.

These policies and the new co-ordination effort between government, universities and students, means UK students could benefit much more from Erasmus+ than they have in the past.

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