Moving on Up: the Benefits of International Mobility

International prospects are vital. For students, the chance to travel abroad to study and work is unparalleled: it provides them with a range of new experiences, understanding and contacts that positively affect their studies and can influence their post-graduation opportunities. Students themselves have become increasingly mobile, building travel into every aspect of their development, from GAP years to undergraduate careers, from extra-curricular activities to work experience. Higher education itself is also becoming rapidly internationalised, with universities around the world recognising the intrinsic benefits of having a workable global strategy, within which student mobility is a core feature. Universities also want to simultaneously attract international students, offering them – and their home students – a genuinely international student experience, both on campus, and through mobility schemes.

All these trends are connected. This means that ensuring students studying at UK universities have the chance to be internationally mobile is Job One. But why are students becoming increasingly internationally mobile? And how will the new Turing Scheme work to support them? While the answers are comparatively simple, making them work in practice is complex.

Internationally mobile students

First, the jobs market. Employment is an increasingly key motivator; employability plays a key role in students’ initial choice of university, degree pathway, and motives their choice of bolt-ons like learning another language, signing up for additional courses, or undertaking a mobility option. Within this spectrum of choices, opting for a term or a year of international study and/or work experience is invaluable in helping students to become more employable than their competitors by accruing new experiences, languages, friends and associates, and the ‘globally transferrable skills’ demanded by trans-national job markets.

Second, the cross-cultural communication skills that students can only attain by moving beyond their home environment. Our 21st century world is becoming increasingly connected in a plethora of ways from cross-sectoral supply chains to in-time communication, from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to mobility opportunities allowing students to learn and work in another country. However, being able to work efficiently and confidently in a range of geographical locations, and in differing professional and personal situations is a challenge. Students can rise to that challenge best being the opportunity to undertake those structured opportunities of working and studying abroad through mobility schemes like Erasmus and Turing. 

Third, access. International opportunities leading to high quality experiences count, quite literally. Employers value new employees who have undertaken a range of various international opportunities, from field trips to summer schools, from a term abroad at another university to working in a foreign country. As a result, the overall demand for work-abroad and study-abroad opportunities has grown steadily in both western countries, and more globally. Universities are at the cutting-edge of the mobility trend, and need to cater for it, in order to strengthen their role as internationalised anchor institutions. This requires universities to undertake a parallel approach. First, to establish structures to ensure ‘internationalisation at home’ with globally-relevant curricula, skills and funding options to sustainably attract overseas students. Second, establish and sustain dedicated mobility schemes catering to home (outbound) and international (inbound) students with prestigious and high-impact global partners. 

From Erasmus to Turing 

Simply put, mobility structures like Erasmus, and now the UK’s Turing Scheme, exposes students for a set period of time to both academia and industry around the world, providing them with the inputs (opportunities) and the outputs (skillsets) that will boost the remainder of their studies, and increase their chances and quality of sustainable employment.

British universities have faced huge changes in the structures and opportunities of international mobility. Brexit brought about political decisions in which the UK ultimately stepped away from Erasmus+, the EU’s long-standing mobility scheme. While many breathed a sigh of relief that Britain and the EU reached an agreement in December 2020 allowing British staff to continue research-based consortium collaborations in the new Horizon Europe package, stepping beyond the Erasmus scheme demands a wholesale change in the goal and ‘look’ of UK-based mobility for 2021. 

UK universities having accordingly been gearing up for the proposed new UK government scheme since early 2021. While details of the Turing Scheme emerged rather more iteratively than planners in international engagement teams would perhaps have wished, the scheme itself had an ambitious series of goals and budget, which seems to have inspired the majority of HEIs and further education colleges, as well as secondary schools. So what are the pros and cons of the new scheme? 

Evaluating Turing 

Turing’s pros are the sheer numbers of students who may feasibly be able to benefit from the first year of the new scheme, with more than 40,000 young people targeted to either work and study abroad. The Department of Education’s final numbers indicate that 139 universities, 110 further education colleges and 114 schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were approved, with a total of £96, 215, 682.85 being allotted for the first year of the scheme. Placements will be undertaken by students in more than 150 destination countries around the world. Beyond the numbers is the emphasis that Turing places on Widening Participation (WP): students from disadvantaged groups who may not previously have considered either university or mobility options.

WP is key. The inclusion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is not only new, but vital. Mobility officers from other UK universities suggest that first-generation university students need to be supported in all aspects of their student experience, and that while having lacked opportunities to travel abroad, WP students are still likely to be global in their outlook, and keen on opportunities supporting educational or work-based mobility beyond Britain. In terms of mobility lengths, Turing also offers a range of categories that students may find appealing, including short-term options (e.g. 4 weeks), the inclusion of students who have graduated, as well as postgraduate taught and research students. 

The cons are that the delays in getting Turing off the ground in 2021 mean that the generous budgets allotted may be difficult to spend in terms of sheer numbers, including the requisite number of WP students. In this respect, “the final numbers of young people taking part are likely to be well below its initial expectations.” Turing’s first few months however may likely be hampered by access, as many of its target countries still have Covid-related border entry restrictions that could take until 2023 to fall away completely. In addition, the key structural drawback is that Turing applies solely to outbound students, and does not support UK universities in being able to attract inbound students from abroad. Nor does it – as yet – permit staff visits, which form a vital part in making and maintaining the collaborative dynamics between universities.  The final big issue is funds: while Turing underwrites travel and accommodation costs, it does not actually offset fees, and for many international universities, these are high – and in some cases prohibitively so. 

And Now, A Word From Our Students 

I’m looking forward to seeing how well Turing works for us as a university, for our students and our partners abroad. I’ve also spoken to a number of my students this summer, to get their take on mobility in general, and Turing in particular. Here are their perspectives: 

“The Erasmus and Turing schemes provide invaluable opportunities for students to travel abroad and gain new experiences. These schemes encourage you to build international connections and develop a more global outlook, exposing you to new cultures, languages, perspectives and ways of life. They also teach you skills that you can’t learn inside a classroom, building your confidence, resilience and adaptability as you navigate life in a new country. These opportunities are particularly important for students from underprivileged backgrounds who may have never travelled outside of the UK. Students are likely to return with fresh new outlooks and enthusiasm for their studies and careers and countless new memories and stories to share with their peers.”  – Politics and Sociology Graduate 2020 

“As a student, a constant worry is whether you’re going to have enough experience under your belt to land your first graduate job, especially one in a field of your choice. For me, having the ability to study internationally is crucial to expanding my employment options, as well as my skills and confidence. Studying abroad will allow me to make new connections in new places, learn and practice a new language, and gain confidence and essential young-adult experience.” – Politics 2nd year student 

Virtual Mobility? 

Finally, a helpful perspective on how ‘virtual mobility’ can offer a helpful mid-range solution, offering students key international opportunities by interacting with their peers and friends around the world in various online formats. Collaborative Online International Learning, or COIL for short, is a key element not only in a truly international student experience but an area likely to witness tremendous growth in the coming years, and which I’m keen to capitalise on at the University of Surrey.

Although not having experienced the physical elements of mobility myself at while at Surrey, due to the pandemic, I was still able to experience mobility in a different way, through the University Global Partnership Network whose 2021 annual took place online. One of its newest formats is a teaching-based project aimed at undergraduates, which pulled together students from partnered universities in Surrey, North Carolina in the US, Wollongong in Australia, and Sao Paulo in Brazil. Working together online in collaborative activities which we could all relate to, and bring our own different experiences to the table, allowed us to share experiences and inputs from our own university communities. Attending the online conference sessions in the evening (or morning, depending on where you were in the world at the time!), also allowed us to explore and learn of different specialties from academics across each of the four universities, and to tackle and debate issues such as climate change and clean air production, from a range of different and international perspectives. Although I was not able to visit any of these universities in person due to Covid, it was still great to get a truly international insight and be able to build these new relationships regardless!”  – Politics and Sociology Graduate 2021

Turing and Beyond

So where now? The onus is twofold: first, upon universities themselves to demonstrate good and imaginative use of the funds allotted to consolidate current mobility partnerships and make new ones. Second, upon the government to respond to the practical feedback from university staff actually implementing Turing regarding the need for possible changes in the scheme’s second year (2022-23). Helpful work has for instance been undertaken in this regard by UUKi in gathering feedback from the HE sector on the Turing Scheme; input from this and other sources to rework key aspects in early 2022 seems a prudent step for the DoE.