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Studying abroad is a win-win for Wales

2 May 2013

If you were to tell your average student in Wales that they could be doing something fun that might help them get a better mark in their degree and even improve their language skills, you would think they'd leap at the chance.

But when it comes to students choosing to study, work or volunteer abroad, sadly nothing could be further from the truth.

It's well known that Wales has a strong record in attracting international students. But whilst some 10% of the world's foreign students choose to study in the UK, we lag behind when it comes to encouraging our own students to be mobile.

The traditional impression of student mobility as a year out studying at an overseas university is now changing.

There are now more opportunities than ever for industrial placements, internships or work experience during the summer vacation.

Student mobility can now involve a combination of studying and working, or working and volunteering, or a combination of all three.

Given the benefits of studying abroad and the importance to the Welsh economy, I believe that all of us in Welsh higher education have a responsibility to sell the benefits of mobility to our students.

That's why this week we marked the success of Cardiff University students who have taken part in the Erasmus programme, which celebrated its 25thanniversary last year.

Funded by the European Commission with contributions from national governments, the Erasmus programme allows students to study or work in one of 30 European countries as part of their degree.

At the event we heard the stories of former Cardiff University students Kate Samways and Oliver Condy, who gave their personal accounts of how the skills and experience they gained through studying abroad helped them in their careers.

Kate talked about her work placement as an IT English Language Assistant in Millau in the South of France, teaching disabled adults for six months and then studying in Venice for four months.

As a result she now enjoys a jet-setting life as an international journalist, using her language skills to translate reports and travelling to cover stories in other countries.

Oliver, who is the Editor of BBC Music Magazine, explained how his experience as a teaching assistant in France gave him the confidence and skills to succeed as a writer.

The good news is that the number of students participating in the Erasmus programme in Wales is growing.

But we cannot afford to be complacent, because the truth is that Welsh students need more encouragement and incentives to study abroad.

That's why when I took up my role as Vice-Chancellor I believed it was crucial this message was driven from the top.

To make our ambition absolutely clear, we at Cardiff University want 17% of our home students to have studied, worked or volunteered abroad for at least a month during their Cardiff studies by 2017.

It might not sound much, but it would be a big increase on where we are now. I am confident we will reach or exceed that target, and can be even more ambitious in later years.

The task of convincing students of taking up the opportunities remains a challenge, especially given major obstacles to student mobility that we know exist: financial constraints, linguistic barriers, inflexibility in the curriculum and the lack of recognition for their time abroad.

That's why in my capacity as the Chair of the UK HE International Unit I was tasked by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, with examining measures to support and increase outward student mobility.

One of the main recommendations to emerge in this report was the need to develop a UK strategy for outward mobility and a sector-led body to support this.

The leadership shown by Cardiff University and other Welsh universities now needs to be backed by wider political support and action.

Studying abroad offers a huge range of benefits for students taking part, and also for Welsh universities and the wider Welsh economy.

Students improve their employability, institutions develop their international links and businesses value the wider experience of those who've spent time abroad.

The message that we need to get across is a simple one: outward mobility is a win-win for Wales. 

Professor Colin Riordan, President and Vice-Chancellor, Cardiff University

This article also appeared in the Western Mail's 'University View' column April 30, 2013

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