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Study abroad supports UK’s soft power campaign, says former Universities Minister

The UK’s former minister of universities and science, David Willetts, has said outbound student mobility is essential to the country’s soft power agenda.

Reflecting on his time as minister from 2010 to 2014, Willetts said one of his regrets was not extending the student fee loan scheme to cover overseas study. Photo: The PIE News

"It is so important actually to get abroad and see the world through someone else’s perspective"

Speaking at the International Unit’s Go International event this week, Willetts said two-way mobility programmes facilitate negotiations with overseas partners.

“When I was trying to persuade them [foreign ministers] to send more students to Britain, I could only have serious conversations if I said that I would like to see more British students coming to study in your country,” he said. “The outward and the inward mobility are two sides of the same coin.”

Reflecting on his time as minister from 2010 to 2014, Willetts said one of his regrets was not extending the student fee loan scheme to cover overseas study.

“The outward and the inward mobility are two sides of the same coin”

“Going back to those negotiations I would have with overseas ministers, the other power I wanted to have in my back pocket would be to say, ‘you say you’re going to make our British universities eligible to participate in your scholarship scheme, I in return will say…that some of your universities will be eligible for British students to use fee loans,” he said.

The current loan system for student exchange covers study in the European Union but students studying beyond the EU must do so at partner universities and have limited funds to cover living costs.

Willetts said the current regime is too restrictive. “I would love to see over time if my successors have grace in negotiating flexibility to permit the use of fee loans for students to travel to other countries.”

During his term, Willetts’ public addressees often focused on international students studying in the UK. However, this time he expounded the benefits of UK students studying overseas and said the country has become complacent in encouraging more students to go.

“We do tend to think, especially in London, who needs to study abroad when you have so many different languages spoken, enjoy so much access to so many different cultures. But the truth is that’s not the real thing and it is so important actually to get abroad and see the world through someone else’s perspective,” he argued.

Universities can play their part, Willetts, who was appointed a visiting professor at Kings College London in 2014, said, challenging them to ease the requirements around degree programming.

“Because so many of our degree programmes are structured and controlled by individual disciplines, if you were running the chemistry department and suddenly someone turns up and says ‘I’m a student in the chemistry department but I’d really like to spend a term or a year out in China’ we find that’s just making life more complicated,” he said. “I don’t think we are as flexible as we should be.”

“Certainly when we talk more to business about their failure to export, we find it’s because they haven’t got graduates who are familiar with other countries”

He added that universities can promote outward mobility more by making it a “collective choice” similar to an obligatory sandwich year when students work.

“I believe there’s a role for universities to try to organise, even if it’s just a term, that gets the students abroad and they all know they’re going and they’ll be back having had that experience.”

Looking at the economic benefits of outward mobility, Willetts said studying abroad can also help the UK’s export industries. “Certainly when we talk more to business about their failure to export, we find it’s because they haven’t got graduates who are familiar with other countries.”

As a supporter of the Universities UK campaign to remain in the EU, he added that outbound mobility can help the country increased trade ties outside of the union.

“We shouldn’t use the EU as an alibi. We’ve got to raise our own game, and nothing in the EU stops us from raising our own game. Some of these proposals to improve outward mobility would critically help us to raise our own game,” he said.

According to a report by IU, almost 40% of the 13,355 mobile students in 2014 were language students.

Excluding this cohort, only 8,300 students from the UK spend time abroad during their undergraduate degree, accounting for about 3% of the all higher education students.

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