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
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.