Ensuring student mobility for everyone

The EU's vision to create a European Education Area by 2025 where cross-border learning is standard, rather than exception, has put greater focus on those groups who have so far been underrepresented in exchange programmes. Fostering inclusion and catering to differing needs are crucial if we wish to “make mobility a reality for all.”

Student mobility has long been a hallmark of institutional internationalisation objectives, with most universities possessing clearly defined goals in this sphere. In fact, in November 2011, EHEA member states agreed on a collective ambition that 20% of higher education graduates across Europe would have spent a period of study/work abroad by 2020; a target shared by the University of Glasgow and explicitly stated in our strategic plan, 2015-2020.

Over the years, research has clearly evidenced the multiple benefits of student mobility, with a direct correlation made between study abroad and improved academic and graduate outcomes.   Positively, the numbers undertaking mobility as part of their curriculum have grown in the UK over the last three years; however, data also shows that real gaps in participation remain. In 2015–16, students from higher socio-economic backgrounds were 65% more likely to participate in outward mobility than their peers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (2.5% participation rate compared to 1.5%). Put plainly, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, black and minority ethnic (BME) students, disabled students and those with care-giving responsibilities are still far less likely to access and benefit from this transformative activity.

A range of factors act as deterrent for widening access student participation. Financial concerns may dominate, impacting on both attractiveness and feasibility, but a lack of confidence also acts as a limiting factor; entering higher education can itself be seen as a significant step for many, so the prospect of leaving one new environment for another can be incredibly daunting, particularly if this also means leaving home, perhaps for the very first time, and the safety net of family and friends.

It’s clear that as improvements are made in student mobility rates across the sector, attention must turn to ensuring that participants are representative of our whole student community.

At Glasgow, we are incredibly proud that widening access runs through the DNA of the University; as a top 100 global institution, our student community boasts more than 27% of our Scottish undergraduate student body hailing from the multiple deprivation indexes of the lowest 20 and 40% in the country. Over the last decade, our strategy has not just focused on the recruitment, retention and progression of this cohort, but providing meaningful opportunities and direct support to enable international experiences.

We found that a major barrier to participation for this group was semester and year-long study abroad. The length of time was deemed challenging, as widening access students are more likely to have part-time jobs and personal commitments outside of their degree, e.g. caring for a family member. Financing this time abroad also played a significant part in students opting-out at an early stage.

As a result, the University of Glasgow has developed a specific travel scholarship scheme and a successful donor ask to alleviate much of the burden of meeting costs for travel and subsistence. This provides a number of free places and 70 GoAbroad Scholarships to study at one of over 50 partner Summer Schools in Australia, Japan, Brazil, Canada and Europe, amongst others. In addition, the University has focused on the development and provision of short-term mobility opportunities. These have taken the form of week-long summer schools with international partners, and even shorter familiarisation trips within Europe lasting only a few days. These “International Taster Visits” to European partners gives 1st-year students the opportunity to meet Glasgow students already in-country, building their confidence to apply for longer mobility experiences during their studies. 

These initiatives provide a lower barrier to entry for students, are scaleable, and, ultimately, create a gateway for students to explore study abroad opportunities and expand their horizons. Creating a diverse range of mobilities to suit differing student need is just one way to support success for all, but it’s an important one, especially as there is general agreement from the sector and students that there is intrinsic value in all mobility, irrespective of its duration.

Research undertaken by the Widening Participation in UK Outward Student Mobility project, led by Universities UK, corroborates our own findings. Over the period 2013/14 to 2015/16, disadvantaged and underrepresented student groups engaged more with week-long mobility schemes than their peers. In fact, between 243.5%-365.5% dependent on demographic.

Universities must shift their thinking from overarching mobility goals to those that target improved participation and equal access to opportunity. Interestingly, Belgium has committed to a national student mobility target with an ambitious 33% of underrepresented students undertaking some form of international experience by 2020, and I imagine it won’t be long before other countries adopt this approach.

If Glasgow’s experience points to anything, it is that outward mobility must be viewed as a strategic imperative for widening access/underrepresented students and embedded in a range of institutional plans to successfully deliver on targets. Short-term mobility will only grow in appeal and developing opportunities with partners to cater for this need has to be a clear objective. And finally, these opportunities need to be underpinned with appropriate levels of financial support and clear guidance and support from the earliest possible opportunity to help build aspiration and remove perceived barriers.

The personal and professional benefits of study abroad are clearly evidenced; we now need to focus on ensuring that life-changing experiences are open to all of our students, regardless of circumstance.

Published May 6, 2019 9:29 AM - Last modified Sep. 28, 2021 3:05 PM