Contrary to the perception of students that internationalism is somehow less relevant to science, some of the most successful academic collaborations supported by the British Council over the last few years have involved scientists and engineers.More needs to be done to help foster a greater international outlook to science in young people, urges British Council Chief Executive Martin Davidson...
The huge progress in communication technology has helped to bring science communities closer together as the world tackles global emissions, population growth and pandemics. Over the last decade, collaboration across nations has pushed ahead the frontiers of scientific, medical and technological knowledge.
In the words of Lord Rees of Ludlow: "Science is the one truly global culture. Protons, proteins and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru."
Young scientists are growing up in a new world without boundaries, with unparalleled chances to share their knowledge and expertise. Yet research suggests that the UK's science students are far less likely to have an international outlook than those in the arts.
The Next Generation UK report, prepared for the British Council by YouGov, explored the attitudes, experiences and aspirations of UK undergraduates. Students from a range of universities and disciplines were asked about their international awareness, their understanding of globalisation and their interest in travelling or studying abroad. Views on the importance of an international experience for their future careers were also sought.
To our surprise, the study found science, technology and engineering students far less open to the rest of the world than those in the arts and creative subjects. The findings suggest more needs to be done in schools, colleges and universities to increase the international profile of science.
Asked to name the subjects where an international outlook was most important, students put science at the bottom of the list. Only a third of students felt that having an international outlook was important for those studying science compared with 58 per cent for languages and 55 per cent for business.
Across most topics the science students were less outward looking than those on arts degrees. Fewer than half – 48 per cent – of science students believed globalisation affected them as an individual compared to 60 per cent of arts students.
They were less likely to value the cultural aspects of globalisation, such as feeling more comfortable meeting people from different backgrounds and less likely to think it important for their futures to have an international outlook.
Arts students were twice as likely as science students to be involved in an academic exchange or other international experience.
Contrary to the perception of students that internationalism is somehow less relevant to science, some of the most successful academic collaborations supported by the British Council over the last few years have involved scientists and engineers. To give just two examples: a study led by the University of Sheffield with a range of international partners identified a key mechanism by which a bacterial pathogen causes the deadly tropical disease melioidosis, which infects millions of people across South East Asia and Northern Australia. In another recent collaboration, UK and Indian university researchers developed the use of rice husk as a replacement for concrete.
Promoting the schemes available to students and helping them to develop their own international experiences at school, further education colleges and universities is a key role of the British Council. In January, 10 new awards of up to £50,000 were announced to expand the successful Trilateral Research in Partnership (TRIP) scheme that develops links between PhD and postdoctoral students in the UK, India and the US.
The British Council believes passionately that the ability to work effectively with people from different cultures is critical. Economic success has long been a matter of the survival of the fittest, and fitness is now measured in international skills or cultural fluency. It is crucial that young people appreciate the importance of 'thinking global'.
The responsibility does not lie with education alone. Employers also have a part to play in getting the message across. The Next Generation UK report found young people in the UK are cosmopolitan and have a strong awareness of the rest of the world. But less than half thought that having this international outlook would aid their prospects in study or work. Improving their CVs and employment prospects was near the bottom of the list of priorities for students across all disciplines when they were asked why they would gain international skills.
Contrast these findings with another piece of research – The Global Skills Gap – and the message becomes all the more urgent. ICM surveyed 500 businesses on the importance they place on international skills and experience for the report, prepared jointly by the British Council and Think Global, the charity working to educate and engage people about global issues.
Three-quarters of the 500 business leaders worried that young people's horizons were not broad enough for them to operate effectively in a globalised and multicultural economy. Unless schools were better supported to teach young people to think more globally, the UK is in danger of being left behind by emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, they said.
Their views on the importance of international exposure to employability were clear. Just under four in five said they considered knowledge and awareness of the wider world to be more important than degree classification or subject choice or A-Level results and subjects. Three in four felt that the UK risks being left behind emerging countries unless our young people begin to think more globally.
These are not just fine words. Research into the careers of students who had participated in Erasmus, the EU-funded student exchange scheme, suggests graduates who have studied abroad significantly increase their job prospects.
Being able to demonstrate that they have lived, studied or worked in another environment enables them to compete more effectively. These students have developed self-assurance and independence, a cultural awareness and often knowledge of another language as well.
According to an analysis of study abroad by the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE), Erasmus graduates were more likely to be employed abroad and had above average salaries. Historically, there has been a wide imbalance between the number of UK students going abroad on Erasmus schemes – less than 5 per cent of the total – and those coming in to the UK. The good news is that this gap is beginning to narrow. The number of UK students participating in the Erasmus Programme rose by 6 per cent in 2008/09, the third successive annual increase. 10,843 UK students took part in 2008/09 compared with 10,252 the previous year.
The Next Generation research uncovered worryingly low awareness among students of the different programmes that can help them volunteer, work or study abroad, particularly in post-1992 universities. There is a role for universities to promote these schemes more effectively and encourage take up, particularly among studentsfrom less advantaged backgrounds who continue to be under-represented on the exchanges.
Funding is also an issue. The government is presently reviewing the tuition fee remission for students on Erasmus and other exchanges or work placements. Universities currently receive money from HEFCE to part compensate for the loss of fees during the year that the students are absent.
We strongly believe that the British government should continue to support the fee-waiver scheme, especially now students are bearing more of the cost of their education through higher tuition fees.
The British Council has worked for three-quarters of a century to help provide international opportunities for people in the UK. This latest research with students and employers has underlined the importance of fostering an international outlook in young people that goes beyond surfing the internet. We believe there has never been a better time to encourage the next generation to reach out and embrace the world opening up to them.This article first appeared on publicservice.co.uk: Passport to progress.