Our economy would benefit from sending students to study abroad

Britain reaps the benefits of welcoming overseas students to study in the UK - but internationalism works both ways. We should also be enabling UK students to study abroad.

UK students don't venture into foreign universities as much as their overseas counterparts. While this won't come as a surprise given the country's language issues, the recent publication of the "Outward Student Mobility Strategy" by the UK Higher Education International Unit (IU) has emphasised the urgency of the situation.

The strategy has been developed as an original request from the Minister of Universities and Science, David Willetts, and highlights the importance of raising awareness at a national level of the benefits associated with studying, volunteering or working abroad. In addition, it raises the issue of making this opportunity widely available to students from both a financial (i.e. scholarships) and academic (i.e. credit recognition) point of view.

Some might say the reluctance of UK students to study abroad ultimately benefits the economy, stopping a brain drain - something that Southern European countries are currently experiencing. Coincidentally, the countries with higher rates of student mobility are those least “Anglophone-oriented”, such as Spain, France and Germany. Many continental students (mostly under the Erasmus programme) use overseas experience as a means to improve their knowledge of English and also as the best alternative to a gap year, which is not so widespread in Continental Europe as it is in the UK or the US.

I don’t believe there is a risk of brain drain in the UK. The nation's economy is dynamic and attracts more international workers than any other European country. However, I do think that in the long run this lack of interest among UK students in investing a few months studying abroad could be detrimental. It is not purely the academic aspect of this experience that is valuable for students, but also the chance to be immersed in the culture and everyday life in their host country. It enables them to understand different societies and their ways of life, a better perspective of the role the UK plays at a global level, exposure to fresh thinking and ideas, and access to new networks of contacts.

I have been working on the internationalisation of university students since 1996. Back then, student mobility was perceived as the privilege of just a few. Throughout the years we have built bridges between Latin American and European universities and seen real change and growth. When Santander Universities began its activity in the UK in 2007, we knew that the contacts between UK and Latin-American universities were not as frequent and numerous as with other areas of the world, such as the USA, Asia or Australia. Today things have changed and those contacts have increased exponentially. Yet there is still tremendous potential which has not been fully developed. Economies such as Chile or Brazil grow at a yearly rate of around 5 per cent. Middle-class populations are expanding rapidly and have a particular interest in higher education. UK firms can prosper in Latin America, and not only in Brazil, but also Colombia, Mexico and Chile.

There is a need for employees who understand these markets, either by speaking the language, having lived in those countries previously, or both. A graduate who has recently been in, for instance, Chile and can speak Spanish, will be a great asset to a company wanting to export their products to Chile or expand in that market. The same rules may be applied to universities. Many Latin American students tend to choose the USA when studying abroad for proximity and reasons of cultural affinity.

However, those who choose the UK seldom regret making that decision. There is a keen interest from Latin American students to study in the UK, but not enough promotion of UK universities in those countries. A bigger marketing effort is needed to entice students into choosing the UK for their postgraduate or Master's courses.

There is also the need to provide financial support for UK students who wish to take the step towards studying abroad. This is where private institutions play an important role. Companies with a global presence such as Santander, with strong links both in the UK and Latin America, should commit themselves to helping those students to study and carry out research abroad. This financial support can come in many different shapes and sizes: from scholarships to travel grants, funding of special projects or PhDs, bilateral exchange programmes etc. All stakeholders involved, government, universities and the private sector, have a responsibility to increase contact and build networks if a hugely important opportunity for the UK is not to be missed.

Luis Juste is Director of Santander Universities UK

The Graduate School of Economics building at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico). Photograph: Omar Torres/Getty Images.
Luis Juste, Director, Santander Universities UK
Getty Images.
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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.