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Australia: push to place learning abroad at centre of uni programs

A new white paper on the social and economic benefit of Australia’s learning abroad programs is calling for urgent action to get the global mobility programs back to pre-pandemic levels.

Some 49% of all learning abroad experiences by Australian undergraduate students in 2019 were in the Indo-Pacific region. Photo: pexels

Due to the pandemic 120,000 to 180,000 young Australians will miss out on the opportunity to participate in a learning abroad experience

Learning Abroad in Australian Universities, published by the International Education Association Australia, draws together comprehensive global research confirming learning abroad as one of the most important experiences an undergraduate student can undertake.

According to the report, “Learning abroad, or global mobility, programs have developed well beyond semester-long reciprocal exchange programs to embrace credit-bearing and extra-curricular short-term experiences; faculty-led and centrally-designed global study tours; global health placements; global studios and research experiences; as well as global internships and work placements”.

“Learning abroad not only fosters globally engaged citizens and leaders, but also connects young Australians to global democracy and foreign policy initiatives,” it noted. “Learning abroad also positively impacts students’ experience of, and engagement with, higher education and improves their employability and graduate outcomes.”

“We need to be getting young people out there”

Popularity of learning abroad programs has grown significantly over the past decade prior to Covid, something the report said has been supported greatly by policy settings and financial support, alongside the work of third party providers based outside institutions.

IEAA research manager Kirrilee Hughes told the The PIE one of the surprises out of the report is that prior to the Covid pandemic Australia was in fact the world leader in global mobility programs, with one in four (23%) Australian undergraduate students participating in learning abroad (23%) compared to 16% in the US, 11% in Canada and 7.4% in the UK.

“We were outperforming the US, UK and Canada, and we need to because of our geo strategic position. We need to be getting young people out there. Australian degrees don’t have things like portability of degrees that exists in say Europe, for example so this is a key opportunity.

“We were doing such a great job and it is vital we regain that momentum.”

Hughes said the report will be used as an advocacy tool to drive policy settings and institutional and stakeholder support for getting global mobility programs back to speed.

“We’re not just saying that learning abroad is a ‘nice to have’, but it’s actually an essential part of undergraduate degrees. There was a lot of literature on learning abroad already but it’s not always easily accessible. We wanted to create this evidence based white paper to really make that information more accessible to people working in learning abroad.”

The report centres on six key outcomes: Globally Engaged Leaders, Global Citizens, Australia’s Relations with the World, Student Experience, Employability and Graduate Outcomes, and Driver for Student Recruitment.

Each evidence-based outcome has a series of practical ‘Calls to Action’ that institutions and learning abroad providers and stakeholders can use to support and drive global mobility programs. These range from how institutions can gain support for programs, engage students and stakeholders, reduce barriers to access, utilise alumni and stakeholder support and expertise, and maximise benefits for everyone involved in these programs.

Hughes said the report found due to the pandemic 120,000 to 180,000 young Australians will miss out on the opportunity to participate in a learning abroad experience and gain the critical skills and outcomes outlined in the white paper.

“There’s a large cohort of students who won’t be able to have that global experience during their university years”

She said the longer it takes to get learning abroad programs back to pre-pandemic levels and continue the trend of growth Australia had seen in the decade before, the greater the impact will be for individuals, institutions and Australia’s social, financial and political economies.

“We know that there’s a large cohort of students who won’t be able to have that global experience during their university years. Advocates for learning abroad will tell you it’s that first experience that seeds the next one, so those students may still have those experiences in their early working years or initial days in their profession but it pushes everything back a lot.”

She warns it is vital that decision makers understand the implications of any further delays.

“Without this key channel we’re not laying the groundwork for the outcomes in the report to take place – we’re not laying new ground for global leaders, global citizens, and for improved international relations.”

“Global research confirms learning abroad as one of the most important experiences an undergraduate student can participate in. Now that travel restrictions in Australia and across the world have eased, it is essential that we work together to ensure that participation in learning abroad programs by our young people returns to, and exceeds, pre-Covid-19 levels,” Phil Honeywood, IEAA chief executive officer, added.

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