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A year of study abroad would create global citizens and enrich education

By Andrew Leigh - posted Friday, 14 May 2004

As anyone who's travelled knows, Australians are famously peripatetic. From Kensington to Kabul, Seoul to San Francisco, you're sure to come across a friendly accent if you stay in town for a few days.

But as this week's Herald revealed, a surprising feature of our overseas population is how few Australians go abroad to study. With only about three in 1000 undergraduates on overseas exchange programs in any semester, it seems likely that only about one per cent of Australian students end up having the chance to enjoy an overseas study experience during the course of their degree. And while a few of us later leave the country for postgraduate study, this is far from the norm.

So why are young Australians intrepid backpackers, yet reluctant overseas scholars? Part of the explanation surely lies in our reluctance to move far to attend university - nine out of 10 students attend a university in their home state or territory. Another factor is the strongly vocational nature of Australian university degrees, in which students are channelled into highly focused courses from the start.


This stands in contrast to the Canadian and US system in which students apply to universities, not particular degrees, and choose their major only at the end of the first year. This system provides greater flexibility for students to take a semester studying abroad, without fearing that they will fail to graduate on time.

How might Australia boost the number of students on exchange programs? One option would be for universities to follow the lead of the University of Technology, Sydney, which offers a bachelor of international studies that incorporates a full year at an overseas university (disclosure: my mother works with this program).

Students in the UTS program add an international studies year on to their regular degree in arts, science, engineering or nursing. With tens of thousands of foreign students paying full fees to study in Australia, shouldn't other universities consider tapping these resources to allow domestic students the opportunity to spend a semester overseas?

A second solution would be to allow students whose parents are unable to assist them with overseas study to use the Higher Education Contribution scheme (HECS) to pay for the tuition, travel and living expenses associated with time abroad. Just as HECS has recently been extended to those who wish to complete a master's degree, so we should expand it to cover those who wish to deepen their undergraduate education.

We might even consider whether Australia's system of narrowly vocational three-year degrees is appropriate for the rapidly changing job market of the 21st century. Four-year degrees, with students given the flexibility to choose their specialty at the end of their first year, might give them the breathing space to consider overseas study, as well as the time to gain a more rounded education.

Study abroad can deepen and enrich the university experience in many disciplines. A semester studying in Beijing may equip a business student to negotiate across cultural lines. A stint in Florence could enable a budding history teacher to bring the past to life for his class. And a semester in San Francisco might help a computer science student realise how to transform her ideas into reality.


International study provides an opportunity to form lasting overseas friendships, breeding tolerance and trust across national borders. Australian universities have a mission to create global citizens; giving students the chance to study overseas is one way they can fulfil it.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 11 May 2004.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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