Willetts pledges partial grant to encourage overseas study
Minister keen to improve global mobility ranking, but students will face costs. Matthew Reisz writes
Funding council grants will partially cover the cost of years abroad under England's system of higher fees but students will face some charges, the universities and science minister has announced.
In a communiqué from the eighth Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area Ministerial Conference, held in Bucharest last week, the European ministers emphasised the need "to provide quality higher education for all, to enhance graduates' employability and to strengthen mobility as a means for better learning".
The last of these was also the focus of the Recommendations to Support UK Outward Student Mobility report, recently submitted to David Willetts, who issued his response on 3 May.
Although there is good evidence, the report points out, that student mobility produces "graduates who are better educated, more well-rounded and more employable global citizens", figures reveal that "the UK ranks just 25th in the world for the number of students studying abroad".
The report was drawn up by a joint steering group - bringing together representatives of the UK Higher Education International Unit and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - under the chairmanship of Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex.
Given that "student perception of high fees and debt might drive demand towards three-year courses" without a study abroad option, the steering group calls for higher education providers "to think creatively about how they include and credit mobility experience".
Mr Willetts told Times Higher Education that he was "very pro student mobility. I'm keen to encourage those who wish it to do some of their study overseas. If there are barriers, I want to remove them."
In the past, English universities waived the fees of students spending a year in Europe under the Erasmus programme and were compensated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Campaigners have been seeking clarification about what will happen after 2012-13, when fees of up to £9,000 are introduced, calling for a cap on what universities can charge students for a year abroad and for continuing compensation to institutions from public funds.
Mr Willetts said that current arrangements "will continue until the academic year 2013-14".
"Then a new system will allow higher education institutions to receive up to 40 per cent of full fees from students who spend a year abroad," he added.
"The students themselves will be required to pay up to 15 per cent, while a grant worth 25 per cent will be available from Hefce for any who go abroad under an exchange scheme, whether as part of the Erasmus programme or not."
The joint steering group report also recommends that the government should create a new body "designed to facilitate and promote best practice, effectiveness and professionalism in the support of student mobility".
Mr Willetts acknowledged that "the next stage is an outward mobility unit to work through the problems. Since I am reluctant to create more units within government, we are carrying out a consultation with the sector, although my personal view is that this is something UUK might wish to take on."