Overseas study is good for business

Lack of opportunity, cash and ambition stops our students learning abroad

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I often read "horror" stories about large increases in the number of UK citizens opting to study abroad, but in reality very few do so – and that's a pity. For every 15 foreign students studying in the UK, there is only one UK student studying for a degree abroad: there are 435,000 international students in the UK and under 30,000 British students abroad. Around 24,000 students come to study here from other European countries under the Erasmus scheme each year, but only 12,000 Britons go and study elsewhere under this exchange programme.

Choosing to learn within another culture is something to celebrate rather than to condemn. First, UK companies need people with broad experience to compete internationally. Second, though we still have some of the best universities in the world, the world is changing.

Our universities continue to attract the brightest and best, but foreign universities still have lots to offer British students. Some German engineering courses focus more on the practical than some English ones, and Indian and Chinese universities are now competing on a global scale. I would welcome more courses that offer students time in different countries, like the University of Hull's politics course or the University of Nottingham's Inter-Campus Exchange Programme with China and Malaysia.

Third, it's right that there is a competitive challenge from foreign universities. Students who choose to study abroad often say they were drawn to the breadth of study, or the quality of the teaching, or the commitment to contact hours. I want our universities to focus unrelentingly on those areas too. Overall, only 3 per cent of UK graduates have had an experience of studying abroad, against an EU target for 2020 of 20 per cent, while Germany wants 50 per cent of its graduates to have worked or studied abroad. The comparable programme in the US is Get a Passport: Study Abroad.

The first problem for those who wish to study abroad is finance. Our system of grants and loans is only available to people studying at an institution based here; a student abroad needs to cover their own living costs. No British government has considered it affordable to let students take their grants abroad. But we are introducing new arrangements for English students taking a year abroad that, for the first time, extend support to those taking placements outside of the EU's Erasmus scheme.

The second problem is places. Many of those looking to study abroad are, rightly, picky about where they go. I welcome the Sutton Trust's summer school at Yale and MIT to help pupils make up their mind. But the total number of undergraduates at Yale and MIT combined is about the same as at either Oxford or Cambridge on their own. The number of opportunities available at institutions abroad with endowments large enough to fund generous scholarships is small.

The third problem is a lack of demand. UK pupils are less international in outlook than those overseas. The last government's ending the compulsory foreign language GCSE has made this problem worse. The inclusion of a language in the EBacc can help reverse this.

I also want to make it less complex for UK students to apply to study abroad and have commissioned a UK strategy to make studying, working and volunteering abroad easier. Our industrial strategy will focus on attracting international students, while helping UK educational institutions gain a bigger footprint abroad. But our future as an outward-looking, trading nation open to other cultures also relies on a constant supply of new graduates alive to other cultures.

David Willetts is the Minister of State for Universities and Science

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