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Reasons for studying abroad:

A survey of EU students studying in the UK

Anne West, Apostolis Dimitropoulos, Audrey Hind & John Wilkes

Centre for Educational Research
London School of Economics and Political Science
E-mail: a.west@lse.ac.uk

 

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Edinburgh, 20-23 September 2000

 

Project funded by the European Community (Research Directorate General) within the TSER Programme

 

Summary

This paper reports on a survey of EU students (from outside the UK) studying in UK higher education institutions. The survey focused on students' reasons for choosing to study abroad and why they opted for a UK higher education institution. Students in our sample chose to study abroad for a variety of reasons but the broad and consistent themes to emerge were that they wanted to: broaden their horizons/experience other cultures; improve their labour market prospects; and improve their competence in English. Reasons for opting for a UK higher education institution differed between students who were studying for a degree in the UK and those who were studying for a short period in the UK (e.g. on a Socrates-Erasmus exchange). Other findings revealed that the student's family was the most frequently mentioned 'main source' of funds and that students were, overall, from privileged backgrounds. The most frequently mentioned individuals exerting a positive influence on the decision to study abroad were the student's mother, father and a close friend.

Introduction

This paper examines student mobility in the UK. It explores the reasons why EU students (excluding those from the UK) choose to study abroad and, in particular, why they opt to study at a UK higher education institution. It thus focuses on incoming students to the UK. To date, little research has been carried out on this issue and yet the number of EU students studying in the UK has been increasing markedly in recent years. The actual number of students enrolled in UK higher education institutions and domiciled in the EU was 96,424 in 1997/98. The number increased by 30,708 between 1994/95 and 1997/98. In percentage terms, in 1994/95, 4.2% of enrolled students enrolled in higher education institutions were from the EU whilst in 1997/98, this figure was 5.4% (HESA, 1996, 1999), although it should be noted that Austria, Finland and Sweden were not in the EU in 1994/95.

In the following sections we describe key findings to emerge from a survey which set out to examine why EU students currently studying in the UK chose to study abroad and why they opted to study at a UK higher education institution. The methods are presented in the next section and the results and conclusions follow. (Full details of the survey are provided elsewhere in West et al., 2000.)

Methods

Sampling of universities and students

The sampling of the EU students involved a two-stage process, first, sampling of the institutions and second, sampling of EU (non-UK) students within institutions. For the first stage, the number of EU students studying in 1998 at each UK institution(1) was calculated(2). A total of 70 institutions with less than 300 students were excluded at this stage as it was our intention to focus on larger, multi-faculty institutions with higher numbers of EU students. The remaining 97 institutions were classified according to country (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) and those within England were further classified into those in London and those outside (because of the high proportion of EU students studying in London). Within each geographical category, institutions were then classified as being 'old' or 'new' - new universities being those that were (in general) formerly polytechnics. The total number of institutions to be surveyed was set at 52(3). Within the two categories described institutions were selected randomly and in proportion to the number of EU students. This stratification was to ensure a representation of 'old' and 'new' institutions across the whole of the UK (see Dimitropoulos, 2000 for more details). The second stage of sampling, involved selecting 50 students in each institution. Institutions were asked to select a representative sample of students and given instructions to enable them to do this (see West et al., 2000).

Design of the questionnaire

A structured questionnaire with predominantly 'closed' questions was designed on the basis of interviews carried by one of the research team (AD). The questionnaire comprised several sections to enable a wide range of issues to be addressed. These included the students' background characteristics (age, sex, nationality, 'home' country, family background etc.), reasons for choosing to study abroad, reasons for opting for a UK higher education institution and key individuals affecting the decision to study abroad.

Response rate

Although 52 institutions were originally approached, a number chose not to participate and in the event the achieved sample of universities was 42. Out of the 2,100 questionnaires that were sent to these 42 institutions, a total of 511 useable questionnaires were returned. This gives a response rate of 24%, which is much in line with the response rate frequently achieved with postal questionnaires. The results should be treated with caution and cannot necessarily be considered to be representative of the total population of EU students at UK higher education institutions.

Results

Characteristics of the students

A total of 71% of the students were registered at 'old' universities and 29% at 'new' universities. Of these, 39% were male and 61% female. This preponderance of females has been found in other studies of student choice (e.g. Roberts & Higgins, 1992). Around three-quarters of the students were aged between 18 and 25 years. Using a procedure described in more detail elsewhere (West et al., 2000) we established students' country of origin. The largest percentage of students was from Germany. The next two largest groups of students were from France and Greece. Compared with national (HESA) statistics there were more students in our sample from some countries (e.g. Belgium, Finland, France, Germany) and fewer from others (notably Greece and Ireland).

Type of study and reasons for studying in the UK

In this section, we examine the type of study undertaken by students in the sample and then look more specifically at reasons given by these students for undertaking study abroad and more specifically in the UK. Initially, respondents were asked about the type of study that they were undertaking. Three-quarters of the students were studying for a degree to be awarded in the UK, whilst just under a fifth were at a UK university on a Socrates-Erasmus exchange programme. (A small minority of students were studying under different arrangements.) As these two types of study are very different in kind, we present in the following subsections, findings relating specifically to:

Students studying for a UK degree

Level of degree

Of the students who were studying for a degree to be awarded in the UK (N=384), the majority - over half - were studying for an undergraduate degree. A quarter were studying for a Master's degree and about a fifth studying either for an MPhil or PhD (it is normal practice for PhD students to be registered initially for an MPhil).

Students were asked about the subject they were studying. The subjects were categorised as far as possible using HESA categories. A quarter of the students studying for a degree in the UK were studying for a degree in the broad category of 'social studies'. This includes social, economic and political sciences and law together with combined subjects in these two areas. Science subjects were studied by the next largest group of students followed by engineering and technology. It is interesting to note that a significant minority of students - over one in ten -were studying combinations of subjects (such as business administration combined with languages, social studies and arts subjects, and social studies and business).

Reasons for studying abroad

Respondents were given a list of reasons that students may have for studying abroad and not in their home country. They were asked for each one to state whether it was 'not at all important', 'of some importance', 'important', 'very important' or (for certain reasons) 'not relevant'. Table 1 gives reasons that were given as either 'very important' or 'important' by 30% or more of respondents.

Table 1 Reasons for studying abroad: percentage rating each as very important/important

Reason

%

N

I wanted to broaden my horizons

71

376

I wanted to experience other cultures

64

378

I wanted to improve my chances of getting a good job

63

374

I wanted to improve my foreign language competence

54

377

I particularly wanted to study in the UK

50

377

I thought that a higher level of English proficiency would improve my job prospects

50

374

I thought that my preferred course would be of a better quality abroad

48

370

I wanted to get a different perspective on my subject

48

370

I particularly wanted to study at an institution with an international reputation

45

374

I wanted to experience foreign academic communities

41

376

I needed a change in my life

41

373

I wanted to get better research experience than I could get in my home country

40

374

I wanted to become more independent

40

374

I wanted to experience different teaching and learning methods

39

375

I particularly wanted to study at the institution that I am now at

36

376

It was difficult to get into my preferred subject in my home country

35

373

I wanted a better quality education than the one offered in my home country

34

369

My preferred course was not available in my home country

32

373

As can be seen from Table 1, the highest percentage (71%) of students indicated that broadening their horizons was a 'very important' or 'important' reason for choosing to study abroad. Over six out of ten respondents indicated that they wished to experience other cultures (64%) and that they wanted to improve their chances of getting a good job (63%). A desire to improve their foreign language competence was mentioned by over half (54%) of the respondents and half thought that having a higher level of English proficiency would improve their job prospects. A similar percentage mentioned that they specifically wanted to study in the UK.

Significant minorities of students made reference to academic criteria - such as wanting a better quality education and wanting to gain a different perspective on their subject. A smaller but nevertheless significant minority reported that it was difficult to get into their preferred course or that such a course was not available in their home country.

We also asked for respondents to give the three 'most important' reasons for wanting to study abroad. The reasons given by the highest proportion of students were:

Respondents were asked if the UK was the first choice of country for their current course of study and 89% reported that it was. For those for whom it was not (N=41), over two-fifths (42%) gave as their first choice the USA and over a quarter (27%) gave Ireland (both English-speaking countries).

Differences between males and females

For each of the most frequently mentioned reasons, we compared the responses of males and females. A number of statistically significant differences emerged, with more males than females rating as 'very important' or 'important' reasons stressing labour market opportunities, improving English proficiency so as to improve job prospects and studying at an institution with an international reputation.

Reasons for studying in the UK

Respondents were then asked why they chose to study in the UK. A list of possible reasons was provided and students were again asked to rate how important each was. Table 2 gives those reasons given as 'very important/important' by more than 30% of respondents.

Table 2 Reasons for choosing to study in the UK: percentage rating reason as very important/important

Reason

%

N

I found exactly the course I wanted to study in the UK

68

373

I thought that with a degree from the UK I would have better job prospects

61

379

I thought that the quality of UK institutions would be very good

58

380

I thought that a higher level of English proficiency would improve my job prospects

54

378

I found the combination of subjects that I wanted to study in the UK

53

373

My English was better than the other foreign languages I know

52

376

I wanted to study at an institution with an international reputation

50

376

I wanted to improve my English

47

376

The UK is not far from my home country

40

378

I thought that contact with teachers in the UK would be good

40

373

I particularly wanted to study at the university where I am at

39

379

I found that it was easy to get information about courses in the UK

39

372

I thought that the tutorial/seminar system would be good

38

366

I wanted to meet students from many different countries

35

377

As can be seen from Table 2, the reason given as being 'very important' or 'important' by the highest percentage of students (over two-thirds) was 'I found exactly the course I wanted to study in the UK'. Slightly fewer mentioned that they felt with a degree from the UK they would have better job prospects (61%) and that they thought that 'the quality of UK institutions would be very good' (58%). Over half of the students made reference to a higher level of English proficiency improving job prospects (54%); that they found the combination of subjects that they wanted to study in the UK (53%) and that their English was better than their other foreign languages (52%).

We also asked students which were the three 'most important' reasons for wanting to study in the UK. The reasons given by the highest proportion of respondents were:

Differences between males and females

For each of the most frequently mentioned reasons, we compared the responses of males and females. A number of statistically significant differences emerged with more males than females rating as 'very important' or 'important' those reasons stressing labour market opportunities and improving English proficiency, in general and in the context of future labour market opportunities and studying at an institution with an international reputation. More females rated as important the fact that the UK was not far from their home country.

Students studying in the UK on Socrates-Erasmus exchange

The students who were studying in the UK as part of the Socrates-Erasmus exchange programme were asked if their period of study in the UK was compulsory or optional. For only 12% was it compulsory. All of the students were in the UK for between 3 and 12 months with around half of the students due to be in the UK for 9 months. For 95% of students, the UK was their first choice of country for their period of study.

Subject studied at home institution

Respondents were asked to give the subject studied at their home institution. The largest group of students were studying social studies (33%). Of these, around 20% were studying social, economic and political sciences and 13% law. Far fewer students were studying other subjects - 15% were studying various science subjects, 13% business and administrative studies and 12% languages.

Reasons for studying abroad

Students were given a list of possible reasons for studying abroad for a period. Table 3 gives the reasons given as very important or important by more than 50% of respondents.

Table 3 Reasons for studying abroad

Reason

%

N

I wanted to experience other cultures

98

92

I wanted to broaden my horizons

95

92

I wanted to improve my foreign language competence

95

91

I thought that studying abroad would improve my job prospects

86

92

I thought that a higher level of English proficiency would improve my job prospects

83

92

I particularly wanted to study in the UK

68

91

I wanted to get a different perspective on my subject

62

92

I wanted to experience different teaching and learning methods

59

91

I wanted to become more independent

59

92

I wanted to experience foreign academic communities

59

91

I needed a change in my life

52

92

As can be seen from Table 3, almost all the respondents (98%) gave as a 'very important' or 'important' reason, the desire to experience other cultures. Over nine out of ten respondents also gave as important reasons 'I wanted to broaden my horizons' (95%) and 'I wanted to improve my foreign language competence' (95%). Over eight out of ten respondents reported that improving labour market prospects by studying abroad or having a higher level of English proficiency were 'very important' or 'important' factors. Whilst over two-thirds (68%) of respondents indicated that a desire to study in the UK as important, a somewhat lower proportion (62%) wanted to get a 'different perspective' on their subject.

Respondents were also asked to give the three 'most important' reasons. Those mentioned by the highest proportion of students were:

Differences between males and females

For each of the most frequently mentioned reasons (see Table 3), we compared the responses of males and females. Three statistically significant differences emerged with more females than males rating as 'very important' or 'important' three reasons - wanting to experience other cultures, wanting to get a different perspective on their subject and wanting to experience different teaching and learning methods.

Reasons for studying in the UK

Students were asked to indicate whether they thought particular factors had been very important or important when choosing to study in the UK. Reasons given by more than 30% of respondents are given in Table 4.

Table 4 Reasons for studying in the UK: percentage rating reasons as very important/important

Reason

%

N

I wanted to improve my English

98

92

I thought that a higher level of English proficiency would improve my job prospects

82

90

I wanted to meet students from many different countries

67

92

My English was better than the other foreign languages I know

53

91

I thought that having studied in the UK I would have better job prospects

50

91

I was particularly interested in British culture

44

92

I thought that the quality of UK institutions would be very good

39

92

I thought that the tutorial system/seminar would be good

37

91

I wanted to explore the possibility of further study in the UK

31

91

Table 4 shows that virtually all respondents gave as a 'very important' or 'important' reason for studying in the UK: 'I wanted to improve my English'. Over eight out of ten reported that they felt that 'a higher level of English proficiency would improve my job prospects'. Other reasons were given by smaller percentages of respondents. Over two-thirds made reference to meeting students from many different countries and around half made reference to language - their English being better than the other foreign languages - and that having studied in the UK they would have better job prospects.

We also asked respondents which were the three most important reasons. Those mentioned by the highest proportion of students are given below:

Differences between males and females

For each of the most frequently mentioned reasons, we compared the responses of males and females. Only one statistically significant difference emerged, namely that more females than males rated as important the fact that they were particularly interested in British culture.

Financing study abroad

All respondents were asked a series of questions to establish how their current course in the UK was being financed. They were given a list of possible sources of funding and asked if their course was financed using this source. Over three-quarters of respondents (77%) reported that one source of funds for their current source was their family. Over half (53%) made reference to personal savings. Around a third of students made reference to working in the UK (33%), receiving an EU grant (32%) and receiving a grant from the government in their home country (31%). Respondents were next asked about the main source of funds for their current course or period of study in the UK. The main funding sources are given in Table 5.

Table 5 Main funding source for course of study

Source

Percentage (N=491)

Family

49

Grant/loan from body in home country (1)

20

Grant from UK public funds

10

Personal savings

8

Work in the UK

5

European Union grant

3

Other (2)

4

1.Government/organisation/university.

2. For example, employer, industrial sponsor, bank loan.

As shown in Table 5, the main source of funding for nearly half of the respondents was their family. In a fifth of cases, funds from the student's home country were identified as the main funding source. For one in ten students, UK public funds (e.g. funds from a research council, local education authority, the Scottish Awards Authority for Students, UK university) were reported to be the main source of funds for the student's current course.

Differences by type of study

We wanted to establish if the funding arrangements differed for students who were and were not on Socrates-Erasmus exchange programmes. Several statistically significant differences were found. More students on Socrates-Erasmus exchange programmes reported the following sources: family, personal savings, an EU grant, a grant from the government in their home country, a grant from their home institution and a grant from a foundation or organisation in their home country. On the other hand, more students who were not on such exchange programmes reported receiving funds from a UK institution, receiving a UK grant and working in the UK.

Experience of other countries

In order to find out about respondents' experience of other countries and cultures, they were asked whether they had spent time abroad before they started their current course. It is interesting to note that virtually all those who answered this question indicated that they had taken holidays abroad. Fewer respondents had had other types of experiences, although over two-fifths of those who responded had been on a school exchange or had stayed with a family abroad.

We also asked about the languages spoken (with varying levels of proficiency) by respondents. Over one in ten (11%) spoke up to two languages (for most students this would be their mother tongue and English). Nearly two-fifths (38%) spoke three languages and over half (51%) four. The mean number of languages spoken was 3.4.

Students' social background

A series of questions was asked to ascertain the social background of students in the sample. Respondents were asked to identify the highest levels of education or training of their mother and father. A remarkably high percentage of the students' parents were highly educated. A very high percentage of the fathers (32%) were reported to hold a post-graduate degree. In fact over half (56%) of the fathers had completed higher education. For mothers, the comparable figure was over two-fifths (44%).

Another indicator of the students' social background was the perceived socio-economic status of their family in their home country. Respondents were asked whether they considered this to be high, above average, average, below average or low. Over half of the sample considered that their socio-economic status was either 'high' or 'above average'. Less than one in ten considered that the family socio-economic status was 'below average' or 'low'.

Influences on decision to study abroad

The next series of questions was designed to establish the key influences on the student's decision to study abroad. The first question asked if selected individuals had a positive influence on their decision to study abroad. The three individuals most commonly cited were his or her mother, a friend and his or her father. These individuals were mentioned by more than six out of ten of those who responded.

Interestingly, many students reported that family or friends had studied or worked abroad. Over half of the students reported that a close friend had studied abroad and nearly half that a close friend had worked abroad. Over a quarter of respondents noted that a brother/sister had studied abroad and nearly a third that a sibling had worked abroad. Around a third of students reported that their father, mother or other family member had worked abroad.

Future plans

Finally, students were asked what they had hoped to do on completion of their degree prior to starting their current course or period of study in the UK. They were then asked what they now hoped to do. Table 6 gives their responses.

Table 6 Students' plans prior to starting their current course and at present

Not home country or the UK.

As can be seen from Table 6, there were some interesting changes in students' plans over the period of time from when they had started their course to the time of completion of the questionnaire. Having studied in the UK they appeared to be more inclined to seek a job in the UK or in another country than they were before they had started. Notwithstanding these apparent shifts, the largest percentage of students at both points in time were planning to seek a job in their home country.

This report has examined the characteristics of a sample of EU students studying in UK higher education institutions and their reasons for choosing to study abroad and specifically in the UK. The majority of students in the sample were studying for a degree to be awarded in the UK although a significant minority were on a Socrates-Erasmus exchange.

The majority of students studying for a UK degree were on undergraduate courses, with significant minorities being on a Masters course or on a research degree programme. These students were studying a wide range of subjects: social studies (the most common), sciences, engineering and technology and 'combined' subjects. Students' reasons for choosing to study abroad varied, with the most important reasons relating to increasing their labour market prospects, broadening their horizons and improving their foreign language competence. More males than females gave as important/very important reasons, wanting to improve their chances of getting a good job, the belief that a higher level of English would improve their labour market prospects and wanting to go to an institution with an international reputation.

The most important reasons given for choosing to study in the UK - and the most frequently mentioned - were that respondents found exactly the course that they wanted, that a degree from the UK would improve their job prospects and a belief that the quality of UK higher education institutions would be very good. More males than females gave as very important/important reasons a belief that a degree from the UK and a higher level of English proficiency would improve their job prospects, wanting to go to an institution with an international reputation and a desire to improve their English. More females on the other hand reported that the UK not being far from their home country as an important reason for choosing to study in the UK.

A high proportion of students on a Socrates-Erasmus exchange were studying for a social studies degree in their home country, with significant minorities studying sciences, business and administration and languages. The most important reasons students gave for choosing to study abroad were to improve their foreign language competence, to experience other cultures and to broaden their horizons. A high percentage also felt that studying abroad would improve their job prospects. More females than males cited as important: experiencing other cultures, gaining a different perspective on their subject and experiencing different teaching and learning methods. Important reasons given by students for choosing the UK for their period of study abroad related to improving their English, the view that a higher level of English would improve their job prospects and wanting to meet students from many different countries. More females than males gave their interest in British culture as an important reason.

All respondents were asked about the arrangements for funding their studies in the UK. The student's family was the most frequently mentioned source and also the most frequently mentioned 'main source' of funds.

The socio-economic profile of the students revealed that they were, overall, from privileged backgrounds. In over half the cases, the student's father had studied at tertiary level; over half rated their family socio-economic status in their home country as 'above average' or 'high'. Over half spoke four languages (with varying degree of proficiency).

The most frequently mentioned individuals exerting a positive influences on the decision to study abroad were the respondent's mother, father and a close friend. There was some evidence to suggest that the students' plans for the future had changed since they had been studying at the UK.

In conclusion, the survey has revealed that EU students studying in UK higher education institutions chose to study abroad for a variety of reasons but the broad and consistent themes to emerge were that they wanted:

Reasons for choosing to study in the UK differed between students who were studying for a degree in the UK and those who were studying for a short period in the UK. Those studying for a full degree gave as important reasons:

For those who were studying for a period in the UK the following themes emerged:

Pervading their responses were the themes of improving labour market prospects, improving English language proficiency, broadening horizons, together with what might be termed 'quality' factors - the desire to go to a university with an international reputation and the course offer meeting the student's needs.

In terms of future policy, the fact that so many students came from privileged families (in terms of perceived socio-economic status and parents' educational level) means that any advantages that might accrue from study abroad benefit only these students, not those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Given that so many of the students studying in the UK received financial support from their families it is clear that if levels of mobility are to be increased for those who are not from higher socio-economic groups, appropriate funding mechanisms need to be put into place to facilitate access. These could be at supranational, national, regional or institutional levels. Without such systems, it is unlikely that student mobility will increase amongst those who come from families with fewer financial resources at their disposal.

References

Dimitroupoulos, A. (2000) Why students choose to study abroad. Report in preparation.

Higher Education Statistics Agency (1996) Higher Education Statistics for the UK 1994/95, Cheltenham, HESA, 1996.

Higher Education Statistics Agency (1999) Higher Education Statistics for the UK 1997/98, Cheltenham, HESA, 1999.

Roberts, D. & Higgins, T. (1992) Higher Education: The student experience, Leeds: HEIST.

West, A., Dimitropoulos, A., Hind, A. and Wilkes, J. (2000) Choosing to study abroad:

A survey of EU students studying in the UK, London, London School of Economics, Centre for Educational Research.

 

Notes

1. The total number of higher education institutions in interim 1998 HESA statistics was 167: 132 in England, 20 in Scotland, 13 in Wales and 2 in Northern Ireland (excluding the Open University).

2. Using 1998/99 interim HESA statistics.

3. Around half of those institutions with over 300 students.

Acknowledgements

The support of the European Commission is gratefully acknowledged. The work was funded by the European Community (contract number SOE2-CT98-2040: Higher education admissions and student mobility within the EU - ADMIT) and by the LSE. We would like to thank the UK universities that participated in this study and the students who returned questionnaires. Without their help this study would not have been possible. The views expressed are the authors' own.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 13 November 2000