What is a virtual year abroad – and is there any point in it? That is the question Reece Jack, of Troon, South Ayrshire, is asking, along with thousands of other languages students whose year abroad has been cancelled or is in doubt.
Jack, a second-year student of business and French at Strathclyde University, thinks the idea of shared “virtual year abroad” resources across universities, being offered as a partial replacement for the real experience, is “delusional”. “Students will not pick up a natural fluency staying in the UK – the most anti-learning-a-language country there is,” he says.
His plans to start university in Dijon in September, for him the highlight of his course, have been thrown into doubt. With no guarantee this can happen, he is considering suspending his degree for a year.
“It is a huge frustration,” he says. “A lot of us chose to study a language because of the year abroad.”
The third year spent overseas doing courses or working is famously the time when language students become fluent. It makes them more likely to gain a decent degree and then a job, and it is sold as a life-changing experience. But second-year students across the country are realising they may now have to try to immerse themselves in a new culture from a laptop in their bedroom.
Some universities, including Cambridge, Edinburgh and Newcastle, have confirmed they are cancelling all plans for a year abroad in the first semester because of the uncertainty. Many students starting their third year in September are still waiting to find out if they can leave for teaching assistant jobs, work placements, or university courses overseas this year. With the coronavirus placing a question mark over where and when students can travel safely, universities are scrambling to come up with options.
Some students are asking to defer their course for a year so they can have a year abroad alongside the following year’s cohort, leaving universities with the prospect of overloaded final-year courses when they return.
Jack worries that skipping his year abroad will set him and his coursemates back in what is likely to be a fiercely competitive jobs market. “I’m thinking that there will be students ahead of me and behind me who will be graduating with better language skills. I think companies would prefer someone who has spent a proper chunk of time abroad.”
Research supports him: students who study or work abroad outperform their peers in the classroom and jobs market, and are 19% more likely to gain a first and 20% less likely to be unemployed, according to a study by Universities UK.
At Edinburgh University, more than 200 students and parents have signed a petition to demand the university explain why it has cancelled semester placements starting in September in countries already easing their lockdowns. The petition says: “With many European countries starting to make plans to welcome tourists to their shores from the start of next month, it is clearly far too early to reach such a compromising decision”.
Toby Gay, a second-year Spanish and linguistics student at Edinburgh, who organised the petition, says: “The teachers have done a great job, but quite frankly the year abroad is when you learn the language. Our degree results are dependent on it and so are our future prospects.”
He adds: “I’ve spoken to a lot of students and they are frustrated about the lack of communication. It is all a mess and no one knows what is going on.”
A spokesperson for Edinburgh said it made the “difficult decision” to cancel overseas placements in semester one “due to ongoing global restrictions and to protect the health and safety of our students”.
Academics feel sad for their students. Prof Adam Watt, head of the department of modern languages and cultures at Exeter University, says: “The year abroad is a relatively small part of what counts towards your degree. But in experiential life terms, it is huge.”
But Watt understands what is at stake for universities, who are tasked with keeping their students safe. He spent the beginning of the year bringing back around 200 students from abroad, some from areas such as China and northern Italy. Many didn’t want to come home but the university had to insist, he says.
Unlike Edinburgh and Cambridge, Exeter has not cancelled semester one placements, which remain up in the air. Watt says it could be that students set off for different countries at different times. “If government guidance is that travel is OK, and the student and the host institution are both OK, that would get our blessing,” he says.
In the meantime, Exeter will use the pool of “virtual year abroad” resources being co-ordinated by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), and will shoehorn extra language classes into students’ schedules. Partner universities abroad are offering online courses, and some work placements are going ahead online, where employees may be working from home.
“I’ve had to be honest with students and say that none of the options are particularly desirable,” Watt says. “We can’t replace that life experience, but we can put in place activities that will develop you as linguists and thinkers who are ready for your final year.”
Like many other universities, Exeter has said language students can skip their year abroad altogether and go straight to their final year, but Watt says packing four years of language learning into three will be an incredibly hard option.
Currently only a few of his students are asking about deferring. He suspects more have “chewed it over” and realised they might struggle to get a job and be unable to travel.
Meanwhile, at Newcastle University Prof Richard Davies, global pro vice chancellor, says his university has decided “with a very heavy heart” to cancel all years abroad chosen by students as an optional add-on, rather than a mandatory part of a language degree.
The university has also cancelled all September travel for its language students, but hopes to send them off in the new year. “One possibility we’ve discussed is that we might need to go through each country individually to assess the risk,” he says.
Claire Gorrara, chair of the UCML and professor of French at Cardiff University, says the council’s 100 university members “want to get as many students to their host country as they can”, but students will have to accept some uncertainty. She says students shouldn’t regard having “an immersive experience” on their laptop in the UK for some of the year as a “worst-case scenario”.
However, many students remain unconvinced. Isabella Ponsonby, 20, from Nottingham, who is studying history with politics and French at Newcastle University, will be going straight to her final year. She says: “I worried that if I arranged to go abroad in January it might all still fall apart and that would be so disappointing. I’ve decided it’s easier to just sack off the year abroad.”