Tuesday 21 January 2020

Over 4,000 Irish students catch the travel bug with growing number studying abroad

A growing number of undergraduates are spending part of their course studying or training abroad, writes Kim Bielenberg

University of Limerick student Lorna O’Sullivan studied at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands last year. PHOTO: Don Moloney
University of Limerick student Lorna O’Sullivan studied at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands last year. PHOTO: Don Moloney
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The number of students studying or doing traineeships abroad is increasing as a growing number of undergraduates see the value of foreign experience. Figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) show that the number of students participating in the EU's Erasmus+ programme has doubled over the past decade.

In 2009, just under 2,000 Irish students took part in the programme that offers EU subsidies for a period of study or traineeships abroad.

According to Gerry O'Sullivan, Head of International Programmes at the HEA, the latest annual figures show more than 4,000 students travelling abroad on Erasmus. That is the highest number to date. With the initial deadline for CAO applications coming up on February 1, O'Sullivan says students hoping to study abroad for a period should consider whether their course has an Erasmus+ programme attached to it.

"Every third level college is covered by Erasmus+, but not every course," says O'Sullivan. "If you are interested in a particular subject, Erasmus+ may be available in one institution, but not in another.

"Before you choose a course, it is worth contacting the college to see what opportunities to study abroad are available."

Partly conceived by the late Peter Sutherland when he was an EU Commissioner, Erasmus stands for European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. It is the EU's flagship education and training programme and funds students, staff, youth and voluntary workers from all walks of life to explore opportunities abroad.

As well as being available at universities and institutes of technology, Erasmus+ programmes are also available at colleges of further education (FE).

In FE colleges, the majority of placements are three to four weeks. In higher education, Erasmus+ supports students with a study period of one or two semesters or traineeship in one of 33 participating European countries as part of their degree.

Students do not pay fees at their host institution, but pay fees as normal at home. While studying abroad, they receive a grant of between €250 and €300 per month and this is not means tested.

The level of the grant depends on whether the host country has a high cost of living.

Students who normally receive a maintenance grant while in college at home can still also continue to receive these payments when they are studying abroad.

O'Sullivan says the whole experience of studying or doing traineeships abroad brings many benefits to students.According to O'Sullivan, the tens of thousands of students who have gone on the Erasmus+ programme have made a significant contribution to the labour pool.

"These are students who worked for a business in another European country or have studied at a European university," he says.

"They have not just augmented their language skills, but they have also had the experience of living and working in a foreign country and building an expanded network for themselves.

"They are very valuable in employment because they have shown they are capable of taking on a challenge and have the aspiration to try something different."

A survey of 77,000 higher education students who took part in an Erasmus+ programme found that 72pc felt that it had been beneficial or highly beneficial in helping them to find their first job.

According to the impact study, Erasmus+ increased their technical, interpersonal and inter-cultural skills, as well as boosting self-confidence. Up to 40pc of participants who went on a traineeship were offered a job by their host company.

The survey found that graduates who went on an Erasmus+ programme as students were much more likely to have a partner from a foreign country. Up to 23pc of Erasmus+ graduates have an international relationship, compared to 13pc of graduates who did not travel abroad on a programme.

In 2018, the top three higher education colleges for sending students on Erasmus+ study placements were the University of Limerick, UCD and TCD, while the top three for sending students on traineeships were UL, NUI Galway and TU Dublin.

The University of Limerick sends the most students abroad to study or for work placements every year.

Josephine Page, Director of UL's International Education Division, said seven degree programmes at the university have Erasmus+ as a compulsory element.

These include Arts, Applied Languages, International Business and Psychology. Page says there are two key benefits that students enjoy when they study or train abroad - personal development and employability.

"Employers are looking for people who have worked in international settings because, increasingly, that is the nature of the modern workplace, and it helps if you have cross-cultural experience," says Page.

France is the most popular destination for Irish students studying abroad, followed by Spain and Germany.

The UK is the most popular destination for traineeships, and more than 100 students study there on Erasmus+ programmes every year, but there is now some uncertainly over British participation in the programme as a result of Brexit.

A spokesperson for the UK Department of Education told The Guardian in recent days: "The government is committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus programme if it is in our interests to do so."

The effect of Brexit on Erasmus+ should become clearer by next Autumn.

Having the right language proficiency may be a consideration for those travelling abroad to study.

While language may be a barrier for many university courses, Dublin City University's International Director, Paul Smith, says a growing number of universities across Europe are offering their courses through English.

Many Arts, Humanities and Business courses are available through English, but language students normally have to do their course through the language of the host country.

Irish Independent

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