The European foreign exchange

Students should seize chances to study abroad, says Stephen Pritchard
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Every year, tens of thousands of European students head for university in another EU member state, in one of the largest and most varied international exchange schemes in higher education.

Students on the European Community Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (Erasmus) programme enrol for between three months and a year. They attend lectures and classes in the host country, alongside local students, and also receive additional tuition.

Erasmus exists to promote closer ties between European universities. Students have the chance to improve their language skills and experience a different culture, according to John Reilly, director of the UK Erasmus bureau. Some 15,000 UK students participate in the programme each year. Even more overseas students come here.

"This is an opportunity that students in Europe are grasping," says Mr Reilly. "It is an opportunity they will never have again in their lives."

Yet there is growing concern that at least a substantial minority of British students are ill-prepared to make the most of the experience. Some fall at the first hurdle. Peter Crush, a history student at York University, failed to take up his place at the University of Amsterdam this term. He claims that the Dutch university did not do enough to provide accommodation, putting him on a waiting list. He was not prepared to go to Amsterdam and "spend the first few weeks in youth hostels or bed-sits".

Students who do make it abroad agree that their universities could have done more to prepare them for the exchange. Ann McGarry, Gillian McLeod, Glenda McIntosh, Helen Knight and Alex Jordan all spent this academic year at Santiago de Compostella, in Spain. Initial arrangements, from collection at the airport to enrolling on courses, were "chaotic", they say. "There was no communication between here and the home university," says McIntosh, an Hispanic studies student at Manchester. There have been benefits: she believes she has become more self-reliant. "It makes you stand on your own two feet," she says.

Some of the problems were more fundamental. Santiago lies in the province of Galicia: its climate and topography is closer to Wales or Ireland than the Costas. This came as a shock to the students. They did not expect to find the Galego language so widely used. University forms are in Galego, and some landlords speak no Castilian. The group would have liked to have known more about the area in advance. "You experience a different culture," says McIntosh. "You won't have everything done for you. Don't look at it as a holiday."

Lack of information is a problem well before departure. Interested students say it can be hard to find out about the scheme. "I have never even seen a brochure about Erasmus," says Rachel Eno, a law student at Lancaster University, who is due to study in Maastricht. "It would be useful to have an overview, especially to tell parents what it is about."

Set alongside their European peers, UK students seem more insular and less self-confident. In part, this is because they are younger; in part, it is best described as living up to the cliche of "Brits abroad". Surveys of Erasmus programme directors across Europe say that British students complain more than any other national group.

Some of our European partners have a more open-minded approach. Anna Jorunn Stokka is a chemistry student at Bergen, in Norway. She enrolled at Santiago for a three-month period, and arrived speaking no Spanish. Now she has a grounding in that language to add to her already perfect English.

As a Norwegian, Anna realises that she may have to make her career away from her native country. She sees Erasmus as an opportunity to do this. This is not to say there were no problems.

She experienced difficulties with course choices, which were serious because her marks in Spain count in her final degree. But she was made welcome and, crucially, she was supported strongly by her tutor in Bergen.

Anna believes she has learned a lot from her time in Spain. "I think I have developed as a person," she says. "It is important to experience other cultures now because I will have to work for the rest of my life."