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There is much to learn from study time abroad

Students spending some of their time studying abroad is a good idea.

Time in another country can make a huge difference to their lives and careers and there are potential benefits for the country too as graduates with good language skills and experience of working abroad are eminently employable. It is a win-win all round and a trend to be encouraged.

So why does the number of Scottish students studying abroad remain so small (in 2011/12, it was 1810 out of 126,000)? Why do we lag far behind France, Spain and Germany, who send three times as many of their students on foreign study trips? And why is Scotland not doing more to facilitate foreign study for its students?

Partly, it may be because Scotland has become a relatively attractive place for a Scottish student to study - the tuition fees are covered by the Government so why would he or she choose to study abroad where it could be more expensive? This appears to be supported by NUS Scotland research which concluded students felt the main barrier to going abroad was the perception it could cost too much.

There are also longer-term cultural reasons at play. There is a strong tradition in Scotland of students remaining in their home city, or at least their home nation, to study, but there is also a persistent problem with the teaching of foreign languages in schools.

The Scottish Government says it will fix this with its new strategy for increasing language learning, although secondary pupils are still able to drop all foreign languages after second year - something hardly likely to encourage an internationalist outlook and an interest in foreign study. The NUS research also supports this as a factor: students said they were worried their language skills were not up to foreign study.

Speaking to The Herald yesterday, Lloyd Anderson, director of the British Council Scotland, outlined what is at stake and listed the benefits of sending a good number of students abroad. "There is good evidence," he said, "that students who study or work abroad are more likely to be in employment after graduation and to have a higher average salary."

There has been some improvement. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government launched a pilot offering 250 students financial support to study in mainland Europe and the numbers taking part in the Erasmus scheme, which offers students the chance to spend a year at another higher education institution in the EU, have risen in recent years.

The Scottish Government says it wants to push this further, with Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, insisting he wants to ensure that young people have the opportunity to reap the cultural and career benefits of living and studying abroad.

That is the right ambition but it needs to be supported by serious funding and the number of students involved is still too small. The pilot scheme, in which the Government will offer bursary payments of up to £1750 as well as a student loans, involved only 250 students. Longer term, that will have to be expanded if foreign study is to have a significant impact for Scots and for Scotland.

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Education

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