Universities in the UK continue to attract significant numbers of internationally mobile students, from other EU countries and worldwide, providing a truly international study environment.
The media has recently been giving a lot of attention to the idea that an increasing number of British students are opting to venture overseas to pursue an alternative higher education in the Netherlands. Various reasons are cited for this, but the main thread running through the coverage is the increase in fees in England and the increasing number of courses being taught in English in other European countries. One would be forgiven for getting the impression that there was a mass exodus of disgruntled students heading across the North Sea.
However, by digging deeper into the data, we can draw some alternative conclusions. Although we don’t have the figures for the current academic year (2011-12), the number of students from the UK choosing to study in the Netherlands has recently increased by 200, from 1,150 in 2008–09 to 1,350 in 2010–11.
However, these figures are comparatively small when they are compared to the number of Dutch students choosing to study in the UK. Over the same period the number of students from the Netherlands at UK universities increased from 3,200 in 2008–09 to 3,340 in 2010/11; an increase of 4% in two years and over double the number of UK students studying in the Netherlands.
The headlines and anecdotal feedback from student open-days are sending signals that attitudes to studying abroad for a full degree may be changing, but these figures indicate that there is a long way to go before the UK becomes a net exporter of education to the Netherlands.
In fact, we want to encourage more UK students to study abroad – it’s an excellent thing to do, both for personal development and for the country as a whole. It’s not something the British have a great track record for.
Indeed, in terms of student outward mobility, (i.e. the amount of people going abroad to study) the UK has plenty of room for improvement compared to our neighbours in Europe.
In 2009, around 32,000 UK higher education students studied overseas. This compares to more than 67,000 from France and 19,000 from Ireland. Putting these figures into perspective, there 32,000 UK students who opted for a higher education abroad, while in the same year 1.16 million UK students decided to enrol on undergraduate courses at home.
A good illustration of this can be seen in an international comparison of the ‘outbound mobility ratio’. This looks at the number of students from a given country studying abroad, divided by the total level of higher education enrolment in that country. As depicted below, the UK’s ratio gives an outturn of just 1. Compared to our European neighbours and further afield, this is a relatively low result:
A similar picture emerges when analysing the level of UK participation in the ERASMUS scheme, the European Union’s flagship education and training exchange programme. In 2009–10, just over 8,000 students from the UK took part in Erasmus for study purposes, below the equivalent figure for both Poland and Spain.
Although improving in recent years, the UK is also well behind countries such as France and Germany, where more than 24,000 students participated in the ERASMUS scheme. Employers are increasingly keen on graduates with a competency in foreign languages, so improving the uptake would prove beneficial to both the individuals concerned and the wider UK economy.
The excellent reputation of universities in the UK is recognised internationally. Our share of the international student market remains second only to the United States. In 2009, just under 10% of all international students came to study in the UK and more than 15% of all students enrolled at UK higher education institutions came from outside the UK.
As illustrated below, several countries within the OECD, including the United States, continue to attract significant numbers of international students. But these students represent a small percentage of the total number of students enrolled there. At the other end of the spectrum, the Australian higher education system has a very high proportion of students from overseas, at more than 21%.
The UK continues to attract an impressive number of individuals from across the globe who contribute to the truly international atmosphere on UK university campuses, which between them boast more than 2.5 million students.