Thinking about studying abroad?

Should Modern Languages students be prioritised?

At first glance, the University’s Study Abroad programme looks fantastic. The St Andrews Abroad scheme features at least 14 participating universities in enticing English-speaking destinations including Australia and Singapore. Furthermore, some individual schools have their own exchanges, with placements including Denmark, Iceland and even Hong Kong. For those of us considering spending our third year abroad it’s an exciting (albeit slightly stressful) time.

However, as a Modern Languages student eagerly perusing the study abroad options, I was shocked to discover that there are far more placements abroad for those studying other subjects than those in Modern Languages. In order to become fluent in a foreign language it is essential to spend some time in a country where the language is spoken, in fact in many universities it is a compulsory part of the degree programme. Yet if you look at the tiny number of places available for Modern Languages students at foreign universities, gaining a place abroad seems unreasonably competitive.

There are currently six universities for Spanish, four for French, two universities each for German and Italian, and only one for Arabic (although to be fair, instability in the Middle East has admittedly made placements difficult). While this may seem like a good range, what they no longer tell you on the new Study Abroad website is that there are VERY limited places available at these universities (an average of two to four at each, if I remember correctly). If you’re studying Joint Honours your choices are even more restricted, with many subjects completely unavailable at foreign-language institutions, even when the partner university actually teaches that particular subject.


As an alternative to studying abroad (I say alternative, but it is the option that the majority end up doing) the University recommends applying to work for the British Council on a teaching assistantship. Yes, this is a fantastic opportunity and looks great on your CV etc, but it has two major drawbacks. One, it’s an extra year on top of your already expensive degree (whereas it counts towards your degree at other universities). Two, you have to hold an EU passport and be a native English speaker. So that rules out many of our international students. You are of course free to find your own work placement, but I think that’s a hassle that many of us just don’t have time for.

While I understand that a large proportion of students here are already abroad, I believe that the University needs to do something about the inflexibility and shortage of places on the Study Abroad programme.  Although a year working as a teaching assistant appeals to some, many of us were hoping to actually study abroad while still graduating in four years, and the lack of placements is disappointing.

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  • Questioner

    Can you show that there is actually a demand for such places for studying abroad?

    As someone in my final year who both studied languages and has plenty of friends who also do, I haven’t heard many complaining about the lack of places? Which implies that many of those who are eligible to teach in schools abroad choose to follow this option.

    You perhaps overlook a key factor here. Namely that the University places people for study abroad placements who have demonstrated that they have the capacity to study abroad and obtain the good grades.

    Many people, particularly those studying languages who have come directly from school seriously value the opportunity to take an extra year which does not count towards their degree. Those people who relish an ambitious challenge, who have already spent time in a country where their language is spoken and who have succeeded to a high level during their first two years can choose to apply for a study abroad placement. However, it has to be worth bearing in mind that this is not everyone and that for many people, teaching abroad and taking an extra year to complete their degree enables them to do return to University much better equipped for their final two years.

    Studying abroad might sound like an attractive option but it requires serious commitment and often a sacrifice of social life and extra curricular activities if you want to succeed academically and this quite simply isn’t something which a lot of people desire, nor something which they should enter into without thought.

    • Philipp Ahrend

      Of course we’d have to do a survey to show there is demand, but I know that applying for study abroad in general is very competitive. You may not have heard many complaining about the lack of places but this could mainly be because most people are unaware of the program and don’t even consider it. Whilst many may not want to study abroad for reasons like yours or others (which I mostly disagree with – unless you go to a really prestigious university you should have enough time for social and travelling), I think there could be a lot more demand if it just were advertised.

    • Author

      I have noticed that so many people don’t bother applying to study abroad as the process is so competitive that they just don’t think it’s worth it. In a university like this where there is already a lot of competition nobody wants to be seen trying and failing.

      The point of this article was to highlight that for many of us who would seriously value a year studying (rather than working) abroad, the option just isn’t open to us, due to joint honours programmes or simply lack of places. I am by no means suggesting that a year of working is somehow less valuable or prestigious.

      • Miriam

        I did this last year. We were all very worried by lack of places. But in the end everyone who wanted a place at a uni abroad got one. Most people CHOSE the language teaching option. The number uni placements is much more flexible than they say. Everyone who applied for one, and had the grades, got a place – at least in the German dept. (Arabic’s a mess, but that’s not really the dept’s fault.)

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