Eleanor Earl at work on her Red R placement.

International work experience

The UK is looking to do more to help students gain overseas work experience.

During university open days or induction weeks, those stands offering the opportunity to work or study abroad tend to have the longest queues, reports Anne Marie Graham, head of programme for Outward Student Mobility in the UK Higher Education International Unit (IU).

“In that first wave of excitement when students are applying, they think it would be great but then they get involved in their courses, have the pressure of the curriculum and assignments, they’re locked into accommodation contracts, have made friends and a reluctance can creep in,” she explains. “It’s not because they don’t want to go abroad but they maybe think it might be too difficult to fit in [with studies] or are concerned about the impact it would have on their learning.”

The UK Strategy for Outward Mobility

The UK Strategy for Outward Mobility was launched by the former Universities and Science Minister David Willetts at the end of last year, who said to compete in the global race, the UK needs its graduates “to understand other countries”. The strategy aims to address the imbalances that exist in student mobility in the UK. A number of research reports have pointed to the importance of graduates having international work experience but for every 15 students the UK receives for higher education, it only sends one abroad. Currently, the majority of outgoing UK students who study or work abroad do so through the European Union’s Erasmus Mobility Programme.

While these numbers have increased in recent years, the country still only ranks sixth in terms of the number of students taking part in Erasmus exchanges behind Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland, according to Erasmus: Facts and Figures at a Glance by the British Council in 2013.

Increasing access to opportunities abroad

The Outward Mobility programme team implementing the strategy is based at the IU, whose remit it is to initiate and undertake projects to support and develop the UK HE sector's international activities. The team aims to increase access to opportunities abroad in a number of ways. This includes this month’s launch of the Go International website, which acts as a one-stop information hub for students, universities and colleges, and there will also be a section for parents.

Graham says that students will be able to explore case studies to see what opportunities exist in their subject area and the countries they would like to work in. They will also be able find out who else from their university has taken part in such projects. The programme team will also monitor trends and has a policy role, working with universities to feed back to policy-makers and the relevant areas of government.

“We will be the collective voice of the sector in this area and want to raise awareness of the benefits and opportunities of outward mobility to students but also academics.”

Focusing on engineering

Graham states that engineering is one of the areas where the programme wants to increase student mobility overseas.

“It’s a very international profession and the more opportunities we can introduce for undergraduates and postgraduates the better,” she says, adding that it plans to work with the industry’s professional bodies to produce a statement regarding outward mobility.  

Supporting professional development

“Anecdotally, we hear that some students believe if they go overseas it may affect their professional status as the work or study might not count towards a UK qualification. The professional bodies we’ve spoken to say this is not the case and would encourage it as invaluable experience for a career in engineering or technology. So we want to work with them to join up the dots and ensure this message is communicated to academics and senior management at the [educational] institutions so they can start brokering these opportunities.

“We already have a number of case studies that show there is now shortage of opportunities and even short-terms ones. The experience can be really transformative.”

Engineering placements in Bangladesh

These include the story of Eleanor Earl, who went went on a three-week placement at the end of the second year of her MEng in civil and environmental engineering to Dinajpur and Dhaka in Bangladesh. Eleanor says travel and experiencing different cultures was instilled in her from a young age and she has worked voluntarily or paid in a number of other countries. Through her involvement with the Cardiff University branch of Engineers without Borders (EWB), she found out about a range of placements overseas for engineering students, of which the Red R placement in Bangladesh was of most interest (Red R is an international humanitarian NGO).

"This was my first time working in a developing country,” says Eleanor. “I had the opportunity to put the things I had been learning as part of my degree programme into practice in real life. More importantly than this, the small part I played in the construction project resulted in real benefits for the local community. This placement helped me to secure a job from September 2014 with ARUP in London.  It has enabled me to succeed in what I want to do.  I will be working on infrastructure projects both in the UK and overseas using my civil engineering degree".

Graham explains that one of the programme’s future projects is to carry out specific research on the employability benefits of international work experience for students across a range of disciplines: “It will be able to identify whether a student who has been involved in an outward mobility project is more likely to be employed six months after graduation than those that haven’t.”

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