Students broaden horizons with foreign study – but is it worth it?
A growing number of Irish undergraduates are spending a part of their course abroad. Kim Bielenberg reports
Nobody could accuse John Cummins of lacking an adventurous spirit during his course in languages at Dublin City University. The student from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, spent the third year of his degree on the other side of the world at Shantou University in South-East China.
"There were very few international students at the university. I am studying Mandarin, so it was the perfect way to immerse myself in the language.
"It was fascinating meeting students from a different culture. Some of the students had never heard of Ireland, while others astounded me with their knowledge of our situation."
A growing number of students are seeing foreign study as a way of boosting their qualifications and enhancing their CVs.
And universities here now encourage undergraduates to spend a period abroad, according to the Higher Education Authority.
Audrey Byrne, exchange co-ordinator at DCU's international office, said: "Travelling abroad has grown in popularity over the past five years. The recession may have broadened our horizons.
"During the Celtic Tiger, students tended not do an extra year because jobs here were plentiful," says Audrey Byrne. "Perhaps it is because of the economic situation. Students are deciding to do an extra year of study.
"An international outlook is becoming increasingly important for students when they are looking for employment. If you walk into many workplaces in Dublin you will find workers from many different countries."
Una Halligan, chairman of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, recently urged students to travel as much as possible while they are in college.
"University students should be encouraged to spend a year studying in a country where they will pick up another language. They don't have to be studying a language to benefit from it."
It is not just language skills that make globe-trotting students desirable to employers, according to Tony Donohoe, education officer with IBEC.
"I think the students benefit by being taken out of their comfort zone. They gain socially and culturally, and they learn different ways of doing things."
The most popular programme is Erasmus, which enables EU third-level students to spend a year at another European university at no extra cost.
Up to 3,000 Irish students take part in the programme every year, and the numbers have doubled over the past six years, according to the Higher Education Authority (HEA)
HEA spokesman Malcolm Byrne says: "Students are now more aware of how experience in other countries can benefit them."
One of the benefits of Erasmus is that students have their stay partially funded by the EU.
They pay the fees for their Irish college, and are given EU grants, usually between €1,000 and €2,000, to cover the cost of flights and some living expenses. Sometimes they take part-time jobs when they are abroad.
"In some countries students find that their euro goes a lot further than in Ireland, while in Scandinavian countries things tend to be more expensive," says Audrey Byrne.
In a lot of DCU's science, business and technology courses, work placements are compulsory, and a growing number of students are now choosing to do these internships abroad.
Wesley Byrne, a student of Biotechnology at DCU, spent four months working in a research lab at Laval University in Quebec, Canada. French is the main language in the province.
"I could have got a work placement in Ireland, but I wanted to go abroad to do something different. I was working on a project where we were getting rid of harmful pollutants from farm waste.
"My flights and living expenses were paid for through the university.
"I enjoyed travelling somewhere different. I think you learn a lot from it because you are going outside your comfort zone. I would definitely recommend something like this for a student going on a placement.
"A lot of the time I had to speak French. The only French I knew was from the Leaving Cert. So it definitely improved my language skills."
Trinity College Dublin encourages its students to travel abroad while studying for degrees. And the benefits are not just about putting a gloss on their CV.
Sean Gannon, director of the careers advisory service at TCD, says: "Many students choose to study abroad because of the enormous range of opportunities for study and research at other universities.
"Post-graduates may travel because they can get funding for research, which might be much more constrained here."
Of course, there is a potential downside to students going abroad in vast numbers. Having enjoyed the experience and seen the opportunities, they may never come back.