U21 research study finds employability benefits to studying abroad and at-home extracurricular activities

Students celebrating at university

U21 has published a new research study, ‘Exploring the impact of student mobility and extracurricular engagement on academic performance and graduate outcomes’. The study, conducted with 13 research intensive U21 member universities across 10 countries, offers new insights into students’ experiences of higher education, and makes recommendations for the sector to support students in unlocking the potential benefits of these experiences for their personal and professional development. 


Conducted by U21 researchers based at U21 member University College Dublin, the study used a combination of participant interviews and graduate outcomes datasets to explore the impact of students’ activities on their academic performance, their first employment, and their personal development.  

The researchers found that both studying abroad and undertaking local extracurricular opportunities (e.g. student societies or volunteering) contribute to students’ development of ‘self’ attributes, including self-confidence, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Social perspectives also shifted, with students reflecting on their role in the world and their relationships to others. 

Lead author Dr Avril Brandon noted, ‘While both types of activities were linked to learning and development gains, this was most true when participants had had an opportunity to reflect on their experience in a structured way. This opportunity is not always offered to students as an integral part of the activity. As such, potential gains may be going unrealised, and poorly articulated to future employers.’ 

Academic performance was shown to be higher for undergraduates who studied abroad, with higher degree outcomes on average, and a higher rate of transition into graduate study. However, the researchers found that overall, study abroad participants reported slightly lower first salaries, bearing in mind that possible contributing factors in first employment earnings also include variance in discipline, gender, and access to internships/placements.

‘While these findings regarding employment seem surprising, there are several caveats we must consider,’ Dr Brandon explained. ‘The self-reported nature of the data may mean that only graduates who were satisfied with their current salary responded. Additionally, we observed a significant pay gap between genders in both study abroad and non-study abroad cohorts, and across various disciplines. This may impact the overall salary, as the study abroad cohort was predominantly female.’ 

Dr Brandon also pointed to the cross-sectional nature of the research, which took a snapshot rather than a longitudinal approach. ‘We cannot examine the longer career trajectory of these graduates, and we cannot definitively state whether studying abroad ultimately increases salary or impacts career progression’, she clarified. 

As an established provider of mobility and extracurricular opportunities, U21 commissioned this study in 2018 to understand why these opportunities appeared to be so transformational for students, and use this to inform the future of student experience, employability and mobility programmes. 

U21 Provost Professor Bairbre Redmond commented, “Studying abroad is rightly recognised as providing significant student development opportunities. However, this research demonstrates that with appropriate support students can gain new perspectives and skills to enhance their personal development and employability, from experience gained both at home and abroad. As the global higher education sector faces a period of travel restrictions and financial uncertainty in the wake of Covid-19, these findings will be critical to universities as they strive to continue offering well-rounded student experiences.” 

Further Information

Caroline Hetherington