Higher education minister David Lammy said last Tuesday that students in the UK must be encouraged to spend time studying abroad. Lammy said that he wanted it to become common for students to study abroad as opposed to unusual, and that it would become easier for them to do so.

Speaking at a conference on the Bologna process organised by the UK Higher Education Europe Unit to link up universities in Europe and make qualifications comparable, Lammy said: “The key to the Bologna process is mobility. We want to get to the point where it is as common for our students to study abroad as it is for them to move around the UK. The process remains a great opportunity that government, higher education institutions and other stakeholders must continue to influence.”

But what has been done to achieve this? Despite plans to create a European higher education area that staff and students can move around easily by 2010, Lammy said there was more to do. “The process remains a great opportunity that government, higher education institutions and other stakeholders must continue to influence. We need to make it simpler for students and staff to participate, with institutions promoting it through joint programmes, flexible curriculums and better support. It will encourage them to become active and employable citizens and foster international understanding.”

‘We want to get to the point where it is common for our students to study abroad as it is for them to move around the UK’

He added: “We need to bear in mind the changing demography of higher education and importance of part-time students. Studying abroad is an option for a wide range of students – not just those who have always been able to do it – in particular institutions.”

John Reilly, Bologna expert at the University of Kent said it was “splendid” to hear the minister say mobility had to be a central part of the process. However, he pointed out there is one flaw: the UK is not signed up to mobility. He said: “This is an area of failure in Europe and in the UK particularly, notwithstanding the growth in the last couple of years – the number of outgoing UK students is still tiny.”

“No-one is opposed to it, everyone says it’s a good thing; but in terms of actively promoting it and getting a higher percentage of the student body involved, it’s not. You don’t hear vice-chancellors saying to heads of departments we must make our curriculum more flexible to get a higher percentage of students mobile.”

But how to explain the increase in the number of Erasmus exchange students? Reilly suggested this is largely down to teaching assistants and work placement students being included in the scheme, adding: “Widening participation policies should have incentives for universities not just to send white, middle-class girls on Erasmus, but increasingly make it part of whole social participation. There ought to be much more noise about accessing [EU] structural funds for mobility.”

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