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.

UNAM.
The Graduate School of Economics building at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico). Photograph: Omar Torres/Getty Images.

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