Thinking globally: How exchange programmes boost student success and support Africa

Student Experience by Bakhetsile “BK” Mangena, Academic at MANCOSA in South Africa

Students have long sought to extend and expand their learning opportunities through international exchange programmes. The experience gained in studying abroad gives each student a different perspective in further understanding the new and evolving urbanised, globalised and technology-driven world. Continuous learning, and the skills gained from different environments and cultures, has become crucial for future success.

“What students learn becomes of less significance than their capacity to reassess knowledge in an ongoing process of adjustment to the turning world. Study abroad creates optimal conditions for empowering students to acquire those relevant competencies.” states Michael Woolf in Reviewing the Impact of Experience Abroad on Employment published by the University of Minnesota.

Skills that international placements develop include intercultural awareness, language capabilities, knowledge of other countries and differing ways of work, confidence, tolerance, self-awareness, sociability, problem-solving, decisiveness, adaptability, and curiosity. These are key skills in global job markets that are increasingly calling for graduates with international cultural awareness and language skills.

“Increasing globalisation and internationalisation has heightened the need for graduates with the ability to operate in culturally diverse contexts,” state Joanna Elizabeth Crossman and Marilyn Clarke in their report International experience and graduate employability: stakeholder perceptions on the connection published in journal Higher Education. “Findings suggest that all stakeholders identify clear connections between international experience and employability, given outcomes associated with the forging of networks, opportunities for experiential learning, language acquisition and the development of soft skills related to cultural understandings, personal characteristics and ways of thinking.”

Students who study abroad also build new international long-term social, academic and professional networks that can increase future global job prospects. Mobile students return with an expanded, global mindset, which helps internationalise home campuses. According to the report Student perspectives on going international by Universities UK International and the British Council, many students report taking a renewed interest in their studies, having a greater appreciation for their university on their return, and being more inclusive, empathetic and welcoming to international students.

The outward-looking culture on campus in turn helps to provide all members of the university with a global perspective, and to prepare all students for our ever more globalised and collaborative world.

Studies show that students who go abroad are more likely to do better at every key indicator in higher education, from attainment to employment. Other than family background, there are very few indicators of achievement quite as reliable.

In another report by Universities UK, titled Gone International: mobility works, researchers found a correlation between outward mobility and improved academic and employment outcomes. Graduates who were mobile during their degree were less likely to be unemployed (3.7% compared to 4.9%), and more likely to have earned a first class or upper-second-class degree (80.1% compared to 73.6%) and be in further study (15% compared to 14%). Those in employment were more likely to be in a graduate-level job (76.4% compared to 69.9%) and earn 5% more than their non-mobile peers.

The study also found that, of UK undergraduate students who completed their studies in the 2014-15 academic year, students from disadvantaged, black and minority ethnic students groups, who are underrepresented in mobility, have even more pronounced successes following outward mobility, and that mobility can help to close the degree attainment gap.

Global student mobility has increased almost twice as fast as the number of students: there were 222 million students worldwide in 2017 (an increase of 45% in 10 years), of which 5.3 million are in graduate mobility programmes in 2017 (an increase of 71% in 10 years), according to French-based information network News Tank.

The United States and the United Kingdom remain in the top positions as study destinations, with Australia in third position and growing rapidly, according to Campus France, the French Agency for the promotion of higher education and international student services. Japan, Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany and The Netherlands are also big markets for international students, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

A report by Campus France states that there were 380,376 African students who studied in a foreign university in 2010, representing about a tenth of all international students worldwide and 6% of all African students. Mostly coming from Morocco, Nigeria, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, and Tunisia, almost 30% of those students went to France. South Africa received 15% of students from other African nations, followed by the UK, with the US in fourth place with slightly under 10%.

China has become an increasingly important study destination, especially for students from developing countries. According to data released by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the few available data sources for international students in China, the number of African students studying in China rose by an enormous 3,335% between 2003 and 2016, from 1,793 to 61,594 students, which is the fastest growth rate among all world regions.

Africa’s challenges, from poverty to youth unemployment, mean that students need to capitalise on new opportunities, including international student exchange programmes. A globally skilled workforce and networked graduate can negotiate, connect and engage internationally simply because of graduate mobility programmes.