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July 2004/30
Issues paper
This report is for information


International student mobility

Report by the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex, and the Centre for Applied Population Research, University of Dundee

Commissioned by HEFCE, SHEFC, HEFCW, DEL, DfES, UK Socrates Erasmus Council, HEURO, BUTEX and the British Council

This report describes research to establish the range and types of international student mobility available to UK students and to ascertain current trends. The report analyses published statistics for scheme-led mobility programmes, the arrangements at UK higher education institutions for both scheme-led and other international mobility programmes, and attitudes to mobility among students and staff.

Table of contents and executive summary (read on-line)


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Annexes A-C
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Annexes D-F
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Annexes G-I
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Annexes J-L
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Scope of report and recommendations from the steering group

Executive summary

  1. Context, aims and organisation of the study

    1.1 Context of the study
    1.2 Eight key questions
    1.3 Organisation of the research
    1.4 Definition of international student mobility
  2. The national and international statistical picture

    2.1 International trends and comparisons: where the UK fits in
    2.2 Erasmus mobility
    2.3 Other national and internationally managed mobility schemes
    2.4 Student mobility outside the Socrates-Erasmus programme
  3. The institutional perspective

    3.1 Managing mobility
    3.2 Drivers and barriers - staff views
  4. The student perspective

    4.1 Movers and non-movers
    4.2 Perceived benefits and problems associated with mobility
    4.3 Drivers and barriers to international student mobility
    4.4 Further comparisons
    4.5 A model for student mobility
    4.6 Future mobility
  5. Synthesis and implications of findings

    5.1 The eight questions answered
    5.2 Policy implications


Annex A   What the literature tells us about international student mobility

Annex B   Research methods

Annex C   Supplementary tables for international student mobility

Annex D   Statistical analysis of the HESA-Erasmus matched dataset

Annex E   The HEI questionnaire: supplementary tables

Annex F   Mobility initiatives in Northern Ireland

Annex G   Promotion of mobility on HEI web-sites

Annex H   Staff interviews speaking about language and mobility

Annex I   The student questionnaire survey: supplementary tables

Annex J   References

Annex K   List of acronyms

Annex L   List of sponsors and steering group members

Executive summary

1.    This study was prompted by concerns about the low level of outward international student mobility (ISM) from the UK compared with other European countries. It was thought that low international mobility frustrates the development of a cosmopolitan and multilingual perspective among UK graduates. This could put the UK at a competitive disadvantage within the global economy. The defensive argument - that English has become the 'global language' - ignores the important intercultural learning experience that a period of study or work abroad can bring.

2.    Eight questions frame the study:

  • What is student mobility - how can it be defined?
  • What trends can be identified in UK international student mobility and how do these compare with other countries?
  • What are the main determining factors influencing students' mobility choices?
  • To what extent is it useful to relate student mobility during the programme of study to prior mobility such as the gap year?
  • What are perceived to be the main benefits of spending a period of time studying or working abroad?
  • What are the main barriers to international mobility for UK students?
  • How important is UK students' foreign-language knowledge in conditioning their propensity for international mobility?
  • What are the main institutional factors driving, or constraining, student mobility?

3.    In order to answer these questions a three-stage methodology was employed, each involving a different scale of analysis:

  • a review and synthesis of available statistics on UK, EU and global student mobility, in order to put the UK situation in context
  • a questionnaire survey of all publicly-funded higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK, in order to document and quantify those types of student mobility for which statistics are not available, and to bring out the 'institutional perspective'
  • site visits to 10 HEIs to collect first-hand information on the 'student perspective' via questionnaires, interviews and focus groups.

4.    The 'evidence base' for the study consists of a statistical and literature review, completed institutional questionnaires from 80 HEIs, face-to-face interviews with 46 academics and 'mobility managers', 1,200 questionnaires from carefully stratified samples of students, and interviews and discussions with 180 students.

5.    We define ISM as any form of international mobility that takes place within a student's programme of study in higher education (HE). The length of absence ranges from a short trip to a full-duration programme of study such as a degree. In addition to study at a foreign HEI, mobility can also involve a period in a workplace or other non-HE environments.

6.    Globally 1.8 million students were studying outside their country of origin in 2000. This figure is projected to rise to 7.2 million by 2025. Although the UK has higher rates of outward mobility than other English-speaking countries such as the United States and Australia, it has lower rates than most other EU countries. Foreign students in the UK greatly outnumber UK students studying abroad.

7.    Erasmus data on European exchanges show that numbers of incoming students to the UK are twice the outward flow, and numbers of outgoing students have fallen by nearly a third since the mid-1990s.

8.    The decline in UK Erasmus student flows to Europe should be set against growth of other types of student mobility and flows to other destinations, particularly North America and Australia.

9.    At the institutional level, statistical analysis shows Erasmus outward trends correlate strongly with two key variables: research activity of HEIs, and changing numbers of students doing language degrees.

10.    Mobility is increasingly, and disproportionately, concentrated in pre-1992 universities. This category of HEI accounted for half of all outward mobility in 1995-96, two-thirds in 2002-03. Corresponding shares for post-1992 universities were 40 per cent in 1995-96 and one quarter in 2002-03. The small remaining fraction is accounted for by the non-university HEI sector.

11.    Only one third of the HEIs which responded appeared to have a specific plan for student mobility. Promoting outward mobility is secondary to increasing the recruitment of fee-paying overseas students.

12.    HEIs and their departments are keen to minimise Erasmus imbalances between large incoming numbers and small outgoing flows, since there is a financial burden involved. Partly as a result, mobility is being redirected from Europe to North America, Australia and other destinations. Work placements are becoming more popular among students, but they can be costly to administer.

13.    The institutional surveys confirmed the key role of language in both channelling mobility and acting as a barrier. However, most staff thought that financial problems were an even bigger obstacle to maintaining or increasing outward mobility.

14.    Both the student questionnaire survey and the student interviews confirmed the staff views about finance and language being the two main barriers to mobility. Other factors which had some importance in the eyes of students were lack of information (or having information too late), actual or perceived academic/institutional barriers (course structures, credit transfer, worries over grades, for example), and attitudinal factors (fear of the unknown, and so on).

15.    Mobile students are essentially of two types: those who go abroad as a compulsory part of their studies (mainly language students), and those who choose mobility for a range of personal, educational and professional reasons. Statistical analysis of matched Erasmus-HESA datasets on individual students show that outgoing Erasmus students from the UK are more likely to be younger, female, white and from families in the higher social classes, when compared with non-mobile students.

16.    Students who had lived or travelled abroad prior to HE (referred to as prior mobility in this report), for example during a gap year, were more likely to engage in formal mobility during their time in HE.

17.    Mobile students generally felt very positively about their foreign experience: 95 per cent thought it had enhanced their personal development, and 90 per cent felt that it was relevant to the development of an international career. Strict academic benefits were stressed less often.

18.    Of those who had been abroad, relatively few encountered major problems. Even finance, the most often-cited problem, was mentioned by only 22 per cent of mobile students; absence from a girl- or boy-friend was cited by 20 per cent.

19.    Nearly half the non-mobile final-year students questioned regretted not going abroad. Among first-years, most interest was expressed in work placements or mixed work/study arrangements, rather than pure study abroad.

20.    The following policy implications arise from the study:

  • A need for more complete and regularly collected data on student mobility.
  • Financial and linguistic constraints inhibit 'traditional' HE mobility such as the 'European Year Abroad' undertaken by language students as a part of their study; there is an under-provision of work and mixed study/work schemes, and these are needed to respond to current student demand.
  • HEIs could be more proactive in promoting student mobility, balancing it against the priority to recruit high-fee overseas students.
  • Information and publicity about HE mobility schemes could be expanded, and targeted at schools and further education colleges.
  • Consideration needs to be given to language learning at all levels in the UK education system.
  • Consideration needs to be given to how access to mobility can be broadened; at present many students are 'socially excluded' from mobility opportunities because of their financial situation, family and class background, and linguistic limitations.