17/05/2012 11:04 BST | Updated 17/07/2012 06:12 BST

Why Do UK Students Not Seize the Opportunity to Study Abroad?

For 25 years, UK university students have had access to a scheme that offers life-changing opportunities. It can boost their employability, increase their knowledge, skills, and personal experience, and save them money - particularly welcome as tuition fees rise up to £9,000 a year. Yet despite all of this, relatively few sign up.

The lack of UK students participating in the Erasmus scheme compared to their peers elsewhere in Europe is worrying because it is not just the students who lose out. UK global competitiveness also suffers if the next generation misses vital opportunities to gain the international skills the scheme offers. Already, three quarters of the UK's business leaders worry that young people's horizons are not broad enough to operate in a globalised economy.

Erasmus was created and funded by the European Union to help higher education students spend up to a year studying in another European country. It has now supported more than two million across Europe taking part of their degree course - or, in a welcome expansion of the scheme in 2007, a work placement - abroad.

In 1987, the UK sent out 925 students - more than any of the other 11 participating countries -- and around 200,000 UK students have followed in their footsteps. But our European neighbours have rapidly overtaken us.

In 2009, more than 10% of students graduating in Spain, six per cent of those in Germany and four per cent of those in France were Erasmus students. In the UK it was less than 2%. While Spain, France and Germany each sent out well over 30,000 students on placements last year, the UK sent fewer than 13,000.

So why are UK students so reluctant? One explanation is the "language skills deficit". Just 40% of UK pupils took language GCSEs last year, and many universities have closed down their language schools.

The other issue is money. UK students worry that time abroad will add to their debts. But eligible Erasmus students have their fees waived during the time they spend overseas, and pay no fees at their host institution, so a UK student could end up paying far less in tuition fees for their three-year degree. And they even receive a grant worth around 350 euros a month to help with living costs while abroad.

Perhaps the real obstacle is a general reluctance to recognise and celebrate the benefits of getting to know different cultures and languages. A YouGov report commissioned by the British Council last year found that fewer than half of the students polled thought that having an international outlook benefited their work prospects. Yet in recruiting new employees 79% of UK employers say knowledge and awareness of the wider world is important, compared with 74% citing degree subject and classification, 68 per cent A-level results and 63% A-level subjects.

Some UK institutions regularly send two or three hundred to Europe under Erasmus, but others send few or none at all. Half of all UK students on the Erasmus scheme come from just 20 leading research universities.

All of us involved in education need to tackle students' dangerous insularity. Teachers at every level of education have to encourage a more outward-looking attitude. Universities where very few students take part in Erasmus should consider how they can help better communicate the benefits of the scheme. Business also needs to make more public how much it values graduates with experience of studying and working abroad.

Numbers of participating UK students have begun to rise, increasing by more than 8 per cent last year and surpassing their 1995 peak. The EU is now proposing to expand the scheme beyond Europe, which could boost UK interest still further.

The government has recently announced continued financial support for all universities and students participating in the programme beyond 2012/13, and there are great examples of good practice from UK universities partnering with the private sector to give young people professional experience overseas. The future is bright with opportunities for UK students. We need to make sure that they take them.