Universities are coming together to offer students the chance to study abroad

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The Independent Online

The benefits of student exchanges – cultural enlightenment, improved networking skills, world travel – have long been recognised as a boon to undergraduates. But the value to postgraduate students, whose priorities are almost exclusively academic, has always been more thinly defined. As a result, postgraduate exchanges have always taken a back-seat to their younger counterparts. But an international partnership is trying to change all that.

The World Universities Network, an alliance of 16 research-focused institutions from the UK, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, the US and China, is encouraging postgraduate students and junior faculty to spend periods of study overseas, researching at partner institutions. The Research Mobility Programme is the flagship exchange scheme run by the network, and aims to cultivate collaborative research links on individual and institutional levels.

In this country, postgraduates at Southampton, Leeds, York and Bristol can take advantage of funding towards flights, living expenses and research costs, for up to six months. Partner institutions in the programme contribute money to a central kitty that doles out £30,000 each year. The money goes to research students who can prove the need to visit the network institution of their choice.

It can be vital to students who need to access areas of specific expertise or rare facilities. The network also argues that the increasing interconnectedness of the world, alongside issues such as globalisation and climate change that affect the entire planet, calls for a new generation of international collaborative researchers.

David Pilsbury, CEO of the World Universities Network, says that exchanges can have benefits for postgraduate research students as well as undergraduates. "Being immersed in a different research milieu is extremely productive," he says. "There's this implicit assumption that research is done the same around the world – well, it's not. And you have to go and see it and feel it to realise that."

If postgraduate students need to study abroad, often their funding council will pay for it. But sometimes this only provides for one trip. The demand for awards on the Research Mobility Programme, illustrates the sheer number of postgraduate students wanting to study abroad. In little over five years the World Universities Network has handed out around 650 scholarships.

The Research Mobility Programme makes it easier for students to study abroad. They help out with all the issues that students face when travelling overseas, such as accommodation, and do this by putting you in touch with the programme co-ordinator at your host university.

This hints at another benefit of the programme: it gets academic staff talking. To get a student to exchange requires supervisors from each end of the transfer to be in close contact. "Because it's a scheme based on the co-operation of those member universities, it sparks off wider research collaborations between departments," says Elisa Lawson, Research Mobility co-ordinator at Southampton.

But for the student, Pilsbury says, the main advantage is that it gives vital experience, and an added buzz. "Some people see the role of the postgraduate student as just to do research in a room," says Pilsbury. "But those students who do go abroad are energised. They get that sense of the bigger picture that only comes to others five or 10 years down the line. It's just a great return on investment intellectually, socially and financially."

Others are not quite so positive. "Anything that makes it easier for postgraduate students to move about the system is good," says Duncan Connors, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee. "But I think that sometimes people need to have a correct understanding of what goes on in a postgraduate qualification." For taught PhDs, exchanges can be good, he says. But when you're doing a research PhD, there's no real need for the undergraduate exchange buzz – what you need is intimate knowledge of your chosen specialism.

"For postgraduates, it can't just be an analogous scheme to the undergraduate programmes," says Connors. He admits that if you're at Masters level, and you're planning on going into the corporate world, then going abroad could be valuable experience. But research students who want to go into academia simply need to focus on getting the greatest amount of expertise in their chosen area. "It doesn't make a hill of beans if I've spent six months in Ulan Bator unless it contributes to my department," he says.

David Hibler takes a different view. Head of the Erasmus unit at the British Council (formerly the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council), he argues that not only is the world becoming more interconnected, but also that academia is more fluid and global, and anything that can help prepare research students for the modern academic world is a good thing.

"You might argue that the personal [development] dimension might be less high on postgraduate students' priorities," he says. "But this is important to the postgraduate too because the world is moving away from the idea that an academic career is about sitting in a study and gathering dust." The growing number of academics crossing the Atlantic proves that the ability to network is vital, says Hibler.

And of course, the academic possibilities are endless – particularly with the opportunity to access areas of specific interest. "In higher research degrees, disciplines become so specialised that there may be only one or two areas of expertise and these may be in other countries," adds Hibler.

Laure Grignon, 24, from just outside Paris, is doing a PhD in physical ocean sciences at Southampton. Late last year, she spent three months at the University of Washington, Seattle. She says that the facilities on offer in Seattle were a big draw as there aren't many places in the world that offer such advanced equipment. She wanted to go there to see what the Americans were doing with sea gliders – underwater vehicles that can take water samples.

"The good thing is to see how science is done in another place," she says. An exchange can revitalise a PhD student, she says. She has even learnt to be more critical of research papers and to question everything she reads. "A PhD is a long commitment, so it's good to see other things and get some fresh ideas to motivate yourself," she says. "In my case it's given a different dimension to my PhD."