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Slipping through the net? Study abroad and student wellbeing.

  • 24 December 2019
  • By Megan Bowler

This blog was contributed by Megan Bowler, one of our Summer Interns. Megan is in her third year at the University of Oxford studying for an undergraduate degree in Classics.

Time abroad is an obligatory feature of most Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) and MFL Joint Honours courses, offering students real-world opportunities for foreign language usage, often in a professional environment, and developing intercultural skills through practice. Students on a range of non-MFL courses may also have opportunities to spend a year, term or vacation period abroad to enhance their studies. Spending time in another country and culture in this way is invaluable – it increases the economic value and personal development aspects of language study, and/or can provide students with specific subject-related or career-related opportunities.

Recent discussions in the higher education policy field have brought two pertinent issues to the foreground: the importance of students receiving value for money for their tuition fees and students’ mental health (lately by the development of Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter). However, study abroad – despite its particularly serious risks for student wellbeing and potential difficulties for students in accessing both physical and mental health support – continues to be a neglected topic in these important areas of discourse. Concrete recommendations for how UK higher education institutions should offer adequate support to students before, during and after they spend a year or time-period abroad remain elusive.

Organising placements abroad can be a logistically challenging process, and the experience itself demands considerable resilience. Given that tuition fee-paying students in the UK pay fees to their home institution during a year abroad – typically £1,385 for UK/EU domiciled students and higher for international students, it is reasonable that they should expect value for money in terms of academic, practical and personal help.

Finding placements

Organising work placements is generally left to students. While this can offer freedom and a sense of personal responsibility, lack of guidance can also be overwhelming. Certainly, institutions do not have the means to run a placement-provider service; over-interference could also limit the diverse range of placements students undertake. However, it is important they have a robust system of vetting the safety and legitimacy of placement options students find and that students have designated year-abroad contacts with whom to discuss possibilities. Asking all returning students to review their placement experiences can enable institutions to create a searchable database of verified examples for future students. This is currently carried out by some individual institutions, but such a model could be expanded to become an inter-institutional resource; this would especially benefit students interested in less frequently chosen languages, destinations or types of work.

Health and wellbeing

Being alone in another country can be an emotionally challenging and at times isolating experience, which may also exacerbate existing mental health conditions. Institutions must take a proactive role by making clear wellbeing assistance available to all students during their time abroad, with specialised arrangements for students with a history of physical or mental health problems and/or SEND (Special Education Needs and Disability) requirements. Preparatory talks should include and prioritise specific, detailed guidance on mental wellbeing and the relevant services in students’ destination countries. This information should also be provided online and as a hard copy so that students can access it any time.

It is important that students are encouraged to stay in touch with designated year-abroad contacts and self-report problems they experience while away, rather than institutions discovering problems retrospectively. As well as providing students with clear information and contact details such as specific year-abroad officer email addresses and emergency phone numbers, institutions have a serious obligation to ensure quick responses to emails or phone calls so that students who are abroad do not slip through the net with regard to welfare compared to those at the home institution.

Shorter trips

Some institutions also offer students the opportunity of spending a term or vacation period abroad. A shorter period abroad can also be an alternative for Languages students who, for personal or health reasons, may prefer not to be away all year. Institutions should accordingly aim to be flexible in accommodating the welfare needs and personal preferences of students to encourage more of them to spend some time abroad.

Independently partnering with overseas institutions can be a valuable way of fostering an international outlook and to provide students with new opportunities. Setting up term-long or vacation exchanges in this way can provide students with an incentive to learn a language, chances to practise linguistic and intercultural skills and/or to experience how their subject is taught in a different country. Seeking and establishing these exchange links would therefore be a useful way for institutions to facilitate further, organisationally feasible routes for students to gain experience abroad.

Some of HEPI’s other work on wellbeing and mental health can be accessed here:

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