On 12th December, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference in Brussels titled ‘Enhancing outward mobility for disadvantaged learners: Guidance from Ireland and the UK (EMASI)’. I was not attending as a student seeking answers into the current state of Erasmus or placement options for current and past students throughout the world. In fact, I was not there for any particular reason at all other than as a Personal Assistant to a student ambassador for the Erasmus+ programme who, despite overwhelming obstacles, successfully availed of many opportunities abroad over the past few years.
I was aware of some of the issues that this student had encountered, but I thought this could not be the same for all students facing study/work periods with a disability or who hail from disadvantaged backgrounds or circumstances. Surely every other student who wished to avail of a study abroad opportunity can organise it relatively smoothly?
Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case and it is for this reason that the Irish Universities Association and its British counterpart, Universities UK, have worked together to create separate reports on the current barriers which are preventing students from availing of invaluable opportunities that, let’s face it, most students take for granted. In the IUA’s own words, the project “aims to develop a practical toolkit for universities and institutes of technology to develop and implement effective strategies to widen participation in the mobility programmes among students from under-represented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds”. Those heading the project within the IUA are Sinead Lucey (International Education Manager), Rosemarie Fuller (International Project Officer), Lewis Purser (Director of Academic Affairs) and Lia O’Sullivan (IUA Communications Manager).
I am sure many of you have, or are planning, to study abroad and assume (probably rightly) that you will simply speak to the international office and your course head who will get the ball rolling. All that is left for you to do is plan where you want to live, who with and start panic saving before your departure. But what if, for a few moments, you consider the alternatives that many students are faced with. What if, regardless of all the savings you compile, you do not have sufficient funds to go because you are from a low income family and work hard to contribute to the running of the household? Or perhaps you are the head of a household, and despite all your potential, your family simply cannot afford to lose you for even a short study abroad engagement? What if none of these are the issue, but instead you were bound by physical restraints?
The purpose of the conference was to present the findings of what can only have been a grueling project, both illuminating and frustrating in equal turn. In summary, the Irish Universities Association found that while there has been a significant improvement in recent years in terms of general access to higher education for students, there is still a long way to go in terms of increasing mobility, an issue which can be attributed to the lack of specific targets for international study abroad opportunities for disadvantaged or minority students. In addition, it was found that there was very little information on placements outside of the E.U. and as such this has not been captured in the higher education system. However, the report also highlights the overwhelming evidence of the benefits from such study abroad programmes in terms of intercultural and linguistic competencies, in addition to general career and life skills.
The main aim was to understand the current landscape in mobility for students, identify current barriers and develop a strategy to widen participation. In doing so, the IUA is actively contributing to the promotion of these study abroad programmes by highlighting in their report everything from where students are going and the benefits evident from those who have managed, through the current systems of support available, to avail of opportunities they could otherwise not have achieved. In doing this, the IUA are thus making an argument for action to be taken to counteract the current issues which are preventing disadvantaged students from partaking in these programmes. In their report summary, the IUA state that in order to empower mobility going forward there needs to be “funding, academic buy in, agility in programme development and review of mobility programmes”.
The most compelling aspect of the project is the emergence of the practical toolkit which has been designed, in website form, to walk higher education staff through the opportunities available for students and also provides general advice and information on how to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in mobility programmes. But the report on a whole is a call for the universities, funding bodies and international programmes to take note of this report. It is igniting a discussion on what can be done to eradicate issues such as financial, accessibility and flexibility options for students who may otherwise miss out. As Sinead Lucey (IUA) noted in her welcome speech, this report has opened up conversations with our own government on “meaningful policy reform in outward mobility”.
We heard several angles at the conference. The Irish and British student representatives were fantastic and testament to their achievement in not only overcoming the barriers to furthering their education and skills but in eradicating them entirely and paving a new way. The stories were inspiring and, in all honesty I could not do them justice. I can however provide a brief opportunity to let one of these speakers highlight, again, their experience in order to not only inspire but to educate those who may be in a position they do not realise is privileged, or perhaps those in the same position who could use some proof that what seems impossible can be achieved.
Jessica Gough is the Erasmus Student Ambassador (2012) who presented her paper on the benefits and barriers she has encountered during several extended study and work periods abroad. Jessica has already achieved a BA in Applied Languages (Irish, French & Spanish) at the University of Limerick. She also completed her MA in Conference Interpreting with the National University of Ireland Galway. I spoke with Jessica to discuss her experiences, plans for the future and advice for current students who may be in her position.
Can you tell us a little bit about the general issues that you encountered upon moving to university within Ireland and how this differed to taking part in a study period abroad?
Moving to university I suppose was a significant adjustment in terms of not having the home comforts and support network associated with living in the family home. The main issue was working with a PA for the first time because my support was always provided by family members up until I went to university. Fortunately, I didn’t have the task of trying to source a PA myself when I went to university. The PAs were sourced and provided by Disability Support Services in UL for my undergrad and in NUIG when I completed my masters. I suppose getting around campus and to and from my accommodation was an obstacle that had to be overcome but again there was a transport service provided by DSS so it alleviated any of the worries I had in relation to mobility. There were significant differences when I moved abroad
Before you decided to study abroad, did you imagine that there would be as many issues? Was there any resource or advice available for students with disabilities before they arranged the move?
I didn’t really think about the issues at first. The first issue I encountered was getting to know how the support services worked in each country and what I needed to do to avail of those services. For example, how the system worked in France differed to how the system worked in Spain which was different again to the system in place in Austria. To a certain extent, I had support from the international office but nobody knows your needs better you, so it is up to the individual to think about the supports they need on the ground to make their experience as successful as possible and how to source these supports.
How did you tackle the issues you faced?
I think being organised was the key to multiple successful study and work periods abroad. I thought about the supports I needed well in advance of my departure, researched how the support systems worked in each country and contacted as many organisations as possible to ensure that as much as possible was in place before I arrived.
What were the highlights and benefits of the study abroad programme for you?
There are numerous highlights associated with participating in the Erasmus+ Programme. The personal, academic and professional development are at the top of my list. I also had the opportunity to improve my languages while making friends from different countries and cultures, and also had the opportunity to explore and learn about countries, cultures and languages other than my own.
What advice would you give to people who may, faced with the prospect of Erasmus+ or international placement, be in a similar position as you?
If I had to offer advice to anyone considering taking part in Erasmus+, I would encourage them to go for it. With or without a disability, they won’t be disappointed. While going abroad can sometimes be a bit daunting, participants need to remember that having obstacles to overcome is all part of the experience.
As this is a platform to speak on behalf of similarly underrepresented students, what would you like to convey to the universities of Ireland on this issue?
I will reiterate that students are best placed to know their own needs but this doesn’t mean that supports can’t be implemented to make the transition from study at home to study abroad less stressful. Despite the best efforts of the Disability Support Service (DSS) and International Office, it wasn’t clear who should be contacted at the host institutions or indeed which disability organisations in the host countries could provide the necessary support. This is definitely one area that could be improved upon.
Finally, what are your future plans and how do you feel the experiences with your study and work opportunities abroad encouraged these plans?
I feel that students with significant physical disabilities who need the assistance of a PA to help with day to day tasks could benefit from an online database of information, organisations or useful contacts which could support them in sourcing and eventually employing their own PA for the duration of their study or work placement abroad. I would be keen to work on setting up this database to help and encourage current and prospective students with disabilities to undertake a placement period abroad. This database would work best if there was cooperation between service providers within the EU so that there would be a seamless transition in the provision of PA services from one country to another. Ultimately, by allowing students to control their own funding and employ their own PA they would be making a positive step towards gaining further independence and ultimately have the freedom to live their lives as they choose.
For more details on the report and the work of the IUA, here are their social media sites and website: www.mobilitytoolkit.ie, facebook.com/IrishUniversities and Twitter.com/iuacomms.