UK students too reluctant to study abroad, says British Council boss
Britain's economic future could be jeopardised unless more students embrace overseas experience, says study More university students should spend part of their degrees studying abroad, says the British Council. Their reluctance, and lack of overseas experience, is hitting UK economic prospects. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images
Fewer than one in every 200 of the UK's university students spend part of their degree in another European country – almost a third fewer than in France or Germany, figures reveal today.
The British Council, which collected the data, warned that the country's economic future would be in jeopardy unless more teenagers went abroad to study. Last year, just 0.46% of UK undergraduates took part in Erasmus, the largest pan-Europe programme to assist student exchanges. In France and Germany, almost three times the proportion took part: 1.31% and 1.24% respectively.
While some students organise their own period overseas, the vast majority do so with Erasmus. The programme operates in 31 countries. On average, 0.91% of a country's undergraduates participate.
Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, warned that there was a "real risk that the UK's competitive edge could be eroded by graduates with little experience of other parts of the world". He said UK students showed "an astonishing reluctance" to leave the UK.
"At a time when higher education has become borderless, it seems our students are becoming ever more inward-looking. We now face the contradiction of having world-class universities with networks of international partnerships populated by students whose horizons are limited."
The need to send students abroad was a "pressing issue", he said. "It could be argued that Britain's economic future depends in part on our students leaving the country."
In terms of attracting students from overseas, the UK comes second in the world after the United States. But the British Council is "witnessing the end of the UK and US's dominance of international student recruitment", Davidson warned. China already has 165,000 international students – just under half the 368,970 in the UK – but it hopes to have 500,000 by 2013. Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands already offer degrees in English.
"This rebalancing ... will bring pain to those who are not prepared. It could result in the short-term loss of income in the UK, but more importantly, in the long-term, an erosion of expertise and high-calibre research," Davidson said.
Postgraduate courses in biotechnology, computer science and engineering recruit as many as 93% of their students from overseas. Without them, these degrees could collapse, he warned. "As a priority, the UK needs to nurture the growth of talent by encouraging outward student mobility," Davidson said. "Not only does this build cultural fluency, the ability to work in differing environments, but more importantly, it will allow the UK to develop a workforce that can drive forward our knowledge economy."