Carma Elliot CMG OBE

Carma Elliot, Director China, British Council and Minister (Culture and Education), British Embassy Beijing, on the value of making international opportunites available to all

I have never doubted the value of overseas experience, and since my student days more data has emerged to support the significant value of overseas experience, for the individual and for the economy overall.

In a 2015 survey by the British Chambers of Commerce, 26% of service exporters cited language and/or cultural differences as a barrier to entering overseas markets, preventing them from contributing to the UK Government’s target of doubling exports to £1 trillion by 2020. 

The new UK Strategy for Outward Student Mobility, which aims to double the percentage of UK home students undertaking overseas placements as part of their studies to just over 13% by 2020, is welcome news in terms of driving opportunity for all.

I have always valued the opportunity I had as a student to spend two years of study abroad in the mid 1980s, including in China. It fundamentally changed my life, enriched my understanding of other cultures, and opened my eyes to a country that had only recently started opening up to the outside world

The experience has driven my professional and personal life ever since. I have now lived and worked in China most of my adult life – first for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and now for the British Council. I am committed to creating such opportunities for the next generation and delighted that we are doing so in wider partnership, including with the Scottish Government. 

I am very proud that the British Council’s Generation UK programme is enabling university students to undertake study and work placements in China – currently the UK’s sixth largest non-English speaking export market, with a value of nearly £17 billion in 2015.

Since the launch of the programme in 2013, more than 40,000 young people from the UK have gained experience in China, equipping them with international skills and perspectives, and exposing them to the benefits of learning a foreign language. 

Our second Languages for the Future report, published today, places Chinese as the second most important language for the UK, a finding that is supported by the Confederation of British Industry, which reports that the proportion of businesses citing Chinese as important has risen from 25 per cent in 2012 to 36 per cent in 2017.

But how do participants in our Generation UK – China programme benefit from their experience?

“China provided clarity of purpose to my career plans,” George Harding-Rolls, a graduate from the University of Edinburgh, told us after completing a year of Chinese language study at Peking University in Beijing through our programme in 2013/14. He now works at a UK sustainable development organisation.

“My international experience, language skills, and contacts made in China helped me get into the sustainable development sector. Within my organisation, I've helped to increase our understanding of China, laying the groundwork to work with Chinese partners in the near future. Thanks to my China experience, I offer much needed China analysis to many of our projects,” he said.  

Research shows that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students and those from poorer backgrounds benefit the most from overseas experience, halving their likelihood of being unemployed when they graduate and improving their social mobility. It is therefore vital that we not only boost the number of UK students gaining overseas experience, but that those students are representative of our diversity as a nation. 

All interns on the Generation UK programme are from low-income backgrounds.

Ilakkiya Sundarraj, a chemical engineering student at the University of Edinburgh, completed a two-month internship at a technology start-up in Shenzhen this summer, made possible by funding from the Scottish Government. She says the experience equipped her with the tools to take on new challenges. "I feel more confident about exploring new industries in terms of career opportunities. I’ve also learnt new ways of building my commercial awareness, networking with people from various backgrounds, and identifying my goals in life”. 

So the great news is that there are many opportunities for our students to go abroad and develop the international skills the UK needs to remain competitive. I look forward to working together with all nations of the UK to support our young people to access them.

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