5.5 Study abroad?
A further element influencing curriculum design concerns the opportunity for students to spend a period undertaking study abroad. Such opportunities can either be embedded within the curriculum or can take the form of a year out during the programme. Experience suggests that universities have been more keen to provide such opportunities for their students than students have been to take advantage of them. This is evidenced by the nation-wide tendency for UK universities to be net importers of exchange students, with many more European students coming for a year or semester in the UK than British students travelling abroad.
The language issue looms large here. In general, the language skills of British students are inferior to those of students from elsewhere. However, British students have also been reluctant to study abroad even when the language of instruction is English.
As far as curriculum design is concerned, the key issue is whether the credits earned by the student abroad are to contribute to the home institution’s award or not. A student taking a term or semester abroad will need to have the credits recognised as part of the degree programme. This means that the institution will want to have quality assurance checks in place to ensure that the material studied abroad is at the appropriate level and that the foreign institution is of a recognised status. It will also be necessary to ensure that any programme outcomes that would have been achieved had the student remained in the home institution are adequately covered by the study abroad. For example, if the student would have taken a core micro or macro unit, do the units studied abroad align with the pertinent learning outcomes? This will require careful scrutiny of the unit outlines to ensure that they cover similar material. A whole year abroad may pose fewer problems, if it can be regarded as an intermission in study, such that the credits do not have to be transferred and recognised locally.
For study that is embedded in the curriculum, the language issue must be considered – at least where the opportunities to study abroad involve study in a foreign language. Indeed, even if teaching is available in English at a university in Europe or elsewhere, the language for everyday living is still a potential issue. In order for the option to study abroad to be a serious offer, students need to have the opportunity to learn or improve their language competency. This should preferably be available within the curriculum and not just as an evening extra. This clearly has implications for curriculum design.
It is widely believed that studying abroad is a way of enhancing the student experience and improving employability, and to be able to offer students the opportunity when they visit on open or visit days seems to increase the attractiveness of programmes. However, persuading students to take up the opportunities seems to be the greatest challenge, perhaps because once students are caught up with their programmes, the risks of taking time out to study abroad loom large.