Higher Education: Wish I wasn't here - Some students who spend a year working abroad as part of their courses get a raw deal. Jenny Johnston and Julia Gallagher report

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For many language students, spending a year in a university abroad is the highlight of their degree. For others, mainly those who choose to work, it can be an ordeal. Few universities seem to provide students with much support while they are away, even though they are paid to do so.

Kina Cavicchioli, who was studying French at Merton College, Oxford, thought she was well prepared for a job teaching English in a French secondary school. She took her position as a language assistant seriously. But it seemed to her that she was the only one who did. At a lycee in Beauvais, north of Paris, she felt that she was regarded 'as a nuisance rather than a member of staff'. She felt very isolated.

Kina says she wrote to her college but received no reply. It appeared to her that the college didn't care where she was or what she was doing. After a term she gave up and returned to the UK. 'I still believe in the idea of a year abroad,' she says. 'But as things are, it really is a hit-and-miss affair - you might enjoy it and you might not.'

Many students of French working abroad feel they are getting a raw deal, according to a research project, funded by the Department of Employment, which was carried out at Liverpool University. Nick Astle, co-author of the resulting report, said that students felt unprepared for the year and so faced huge professional and social problems. They can find themselves overwhelmed by a responsible job and a different culture and language.

All students of French at the university will now take a crash course in teaching before they go. And they will carry out a detailed project with continuous feedback from college tutors during the year.

Initiatives like this are rare, however. Most universities claim they do not have the money to take an active interest in absent students - even though while working abroad, students are still regarded as members of their home universities, and local education authorities continue to pay half their tuition fees to these universities while they are away. According to the Department for Education, this money should be spent on providing 'pastoral and academic care' for absent students.

'We expect the home institution to monitor the progress of students working abroad. Obviously this is not a full-time task, so it doesn't cost as much as if the student was in college. However, some supervision is still needed,' said a spokeswoman for the department.

But since there are no official guidelines on what 'pastoral and academic care' means, it is left to individual language departments to decide how much contact they have with these students. Many universities seem unaware that they are expected to keep in touch with absent students. Others admit they have little contact with students abroad.

Professor Jeremy Lawrance, head of the Spanish department at Manchester university, said: 'We do not require our students to be in touch with us and there is certainly no academic work for them to do. In fact, we don't tend to hear from them unless something goes wrong.'

A few, however, do find the funds to visit students working abroad. Trevor Jones, from the French department at Southampton University, believes that visits to working students are worth the expense. 'Getting to assistants who are scattered all over the place isn't easy, but we send a tutor out most years. It is useful to go and see the students in context, to check up on how they are doing and how they are being treated by the school.

'Every year there are problems - there definitely tends to be a less supportive atmosphere in French schools - and adjusting can be difficult,' he says.

Assistantships are organised by the Central Bureau for Exchanges and Visits, a body funded by the Department for Education. The bureau sets up jobs, but has limited powers to intervene once the student has started work. 'When we get complaints we can only ask the education authorities of the country concerned to investigate the school,' says Cherry Winchester of the bureau. 'If they do not uphold the complaint we cannot go in ourselves and demand that no more assistants be sent there.'

She believes many of the problems arise from the different education cultures. 'The French system, for instance, does not have the same tradition of pastoral care - teachers come in, teach, and go home again. Unfortunately, British assistants there aren't always looked after as well as they might be,' she said.

Under these circumstances, a lack of contact with their home colleges can leave students feeling particularly isolated.

A student from University College London said he received no support during his time in Marseilles. 'We were thrown into classes and expected to teach without any training,' he said. 'UCL didn't even drop me a note to ask how I was getting on.'

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, a languages student at Cambridge University who was an assistant in Italy last year, said: 'Once you are out there you really are left on your own. We were given a college contact number, but it was made clear that this was only for emergencies.'

Andrew, who was teaching near Bologna, got into financial difficulties during his year away. 'Once I had to wait six weeks for my pay. I had to take on private tuition to keep going.

'I knew that the university was still getting my fees. I did question that, but they told me the money was going towards maintaining facilities in Cambridge. That was a lot of use to me in Italy.'

(Photograph omitted)

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