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Disadvantaged students still less mobile, despite gains

The percentage of UK domiciled students who undertake a period of study, training, or work placement abroad is currently 6.6%, according to Universities UK International. But a new report from the organisation, which represents UK HEIs globally, reveals the rate of mobile students still drops significantly in disadvantaged demographic groups despite improvements.

Study abroad, student mobility, UUKi,Flexible mobility such as that employed by GCU are used to improve mobility Photo: Glasgow Caledonian University

Only 1% of Asian students from low socio-economic backgrounds go abroad

The report does not gloss over this fact, while noting that institutions in both HE and FE are seen to be invested in improving the participation of all students.

“The need for work in this area is becoming increasingly clear as our understanding of widening participation in the UK grows”, the introduction reads.

“Flexibility in the approach to mobility works especially well for Glasgow Caledonian University”

Students from low socio-economic backgrounds, or black and minority ethnic families were far less likely to study abroad. Only 1.4% of BME students participated in mobility in 2015/16, for example, while the percentage was the same for students from unskilled labour backgrounds.

Though the rate of participation is generally low for BME students, it has increased steadily from just 1% in 2013/14. It is also important to note that the figures are different for students from different minority ethnic backgrounds. Chinese students, for example, are almost three times more likely to participate in mobility than British Bangladeshi students.

Students who grew up in neighbourhoods with low participation in HE and disabled students are also highlighted by the report as demographics with low participation rates.

Although there has been growth in the percentage of students from these cohorts who chose to be mobile during their degree, the figures remain much lower than the general student population.

Students with multiple barriers to mobility choose to study or work abroad even less, according to the report.

Only 1% of Asian students from low socio-economic backgrounds go overseas compared to 1.6% of white students from similar socio-economic families.

As the 2016 UUKi report “Gone International” made clear, mobility is an important factor in postgraduate job prospects. But as the gap between the opportunities of those who were mobile and those who were not is greater in disadvantaged groups, the low rate of mobility in these groups is concerning.

In its report, UUKi set out ten recommendations for institutions to boost outward mobility. These include support from institutional leadership and academics, setting of numerical targets, providing a flexible mix of short and long-term mobility programs, and ring-fencing financial support for disadvantaged student groups.

Jeanine Gregersen-Hermans, pro-vice chancellor international of Glasgow Caledonian University, one of the institutions highlighted as a best practitioner in the UUKi report, said flexibility is key to its mobility program.

“Flexibility in the approach to mobility works especially well for Glasgow Caledonian University,” she said. One example is GCU’s European Study Tour – a five-day trip to Spain for second-year students in the Department of Construction and Surveying including a visit to the University of Huelva.

“Students meet with GCU students on the Erasmus exchange and gain an insight into studying in a foreign country,” she said.

Studying is by far the most popular type of mobility for BME students going overseas

Not only does this allow students to experience international education styles first-hand, it also improves the uptake of future study abroad later in the students’ academic career.

“It has resulted in a proportionately higher uptake of Erasmus mobility in level 3”, Gregersen-Hermans added.

The report looks at three types of student mobility. The most popular overall (attracting over 75% of all mobile students in 2015/16) is study abroad, though working and volunteering abroad are popular with different groups.

Among disabled students 18.5% volunteer while only 2.8% are gainfully employed when they go abroad. This is not only at odds with the general mobile student population, but also different to other disadvantaged groups.

Meanwhile, only 1.5% of mobile BME students volunteer while abroad. In contrast, studying abroad is by far the most popular option for this group, with 82.4% of mobile BME students taking this option, above the average rate of 76.4% for all outbound UK students.

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