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Cultural Exchanges for Young People in the UK: Where to Find Them


The UK is very lucky to have so many options for cultural exchanges in foreign countries, although many young people in the UK don’t seem to be aware of just how many opportunities they have at their fingertips, and the uptake is subsequently pretty low. This blog post is an attempt to identify these opportunities and the nine key organisations and factors that make the myriad of cultural exchange options possible. Read on for ideas and details of international exchanges and programmes you can participate in (often at zero cost to you).

         Apologies that the tone of this blog post is very different from my normal posts and it’s (an attempt at) academic register, nearly 4 years after I was last in an academic setting. Why is it written this way? In December I spent 2 weeks in Berlin studying at the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy. To complete the course I had to submit an essay on a topic of my choice related to cultural diplomacy. My disclaimer is that I wrote this essay in Nepal, for the most part without any access to the internet, bar a little fact-checking before the final submission, so it’s quite subjective and I’m sure to have missed things. But I was pleased to receive an ‘A’ grade for the essay and to be asked by the ICD to write a further, more in-depth paper on the subject, so I thought it was worth publishing the essay here on my blog too. Prepare for a mammoth blog post… If you make it to the end, then I hope you found it interesting and please do let me know what you think!

An analysis of the key actors in cultural exchange opportunities for young people in the UK

        The field of Cultural Diplomacy within international relations is a very broad one, encompassing many activities of a diverse nature. One such activity identified by the American diplomat Cynthia P. Schneider as an important element of cultural diplomacy is that of cultural exchange, which she describes as able to “increase understanding, shatter stereotypes, and change the way people view each other, which ultimately can lead to changes in the way governments interact”1. The importance of people-to-people relational cultural exchange is also reinforced by data from the 2007 USIA Alumni Study2 completed by 213 US public diplomats, which found that exchange programmes and educational exchanges were the top two scoring responses for the most effective public diplomacy activities. Schneider laments the current situation in the United States, specifically exemplifying the UK’s British Council as a potential model for the US to follow3. Given Schneider’s conclusion that the British model might be one to follow, in this essay I would like to further analyse the current provision of opportunities for young people in the UK to engage in cultural exchange, and thus determine who in fact are the key actors in the UK and whether they make the UK a good example for other nations to emulate.

         To do this I will identify the key actors in the main cultural exchange opportunities offered in the UK, which include the British Council but also several others, and I shall give examples of the opportunities they each offer. Through analysing these key actors and balancing their respective merits against their areas for improvement or potential barriers, I shall paint a picture of the current cultural exchange ecosystem in the UK and identify any further improvements that could be made. It is important to note that I seek to analyse the UK’s cultural exchange provision in isolation, without a broader comparison to other nations’ examples of best practice across the world. That comparison would certainly be an interesting study, one which however would require a much larger quantity of data and examples to reach a fair conclusion, so instead I shall focus the subject of this essay on the specific actors in the UK.


To approach the analysis of the key actors in the UK, we can group the key actors into nine main categories, each of which I shall address in turn.

  • International institutions
  • Governmental departments
  • Non-departmental public bodies
  • Educational institutions and schools
  • Non-governmental organisations and charities
  • Public and private sector employers
  • The travel and tourism industry
  • The media
  • Civil society

International institutions

        At the international level, the UK’s membership of the European Union offers its citizens the attractive freedom of movement and the right to reside and work in 32 European countries. In terms of actively encouraging cultural exchange at the level of international institutions, we see many British students making the most of opportunities such as the extensive Erasmus+ programme of work placements and study exchanges at all levels of higher education, offered and funded by the European Commission to encourage mobility of young people within the European Union and ultimately help foster a European identity among participants. Already over 3 million Europeans have taken part in Erasmus since its inception in 19874 and the level of grants available and number of participating institutions and companies across the European continent is very impressive. Still however the programme receives proportionately fewer participants from the UK than other member states, considering that Britons make up 12.7% of the EU’s population5, compared to only 5.7% of Erasmus+ participants6. Reasons for this may include a lack of awareness of the options, which could be remedied by universities that organise Erasmus+ placements; and a comparative lack of foreign language skills in the UK, which may push a larger number of students to study in Anglophone countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where of course they are not eligible for Erasmus+ grants, thus generally restricting those opportunities to participants from more wealthy socio-economic classes. The well-deserved recognition that the Erasmus+ programme receives among students and employers in the UK alike makes it an example of a very successful cultural exchange offered by an international institution.

Governmental departments

        A number of UK governmental departments are involved in promoting cultural exchanges for young people, although more from the angle of providing funds for other initiatives than for running their own in-house exchanges. For example, the Department of International Development funds the International Citizen Service, which offers volunteering opportunities to people aged 18-35 in 25 countries across the developing world, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is the official sponsoring department of the British Council and in 2014/15 provided £154 million (16%) of its funding7. The government’s involvement in funding such opportunities is absolutely vital in the UK, but is ever under threat from budget cuts or changes in agenda according to the political party in power. Other important cultural exchange opportunities that the UK’s FCO offers to young people are the bilateral working holiday visa agreements it has arranged with countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, allowing people under 30 to spend up to 1 or 2 years living and working abroad in those countries. Furthermore, the strength of the British government’s international relations afford British citizens visa-free access to 173 countries, making international travel and exposure to foreign cultures very accessible. One department that could do significantly more to promote intercultural learning however is the Department for Education, which could place more emphasis on the teaching of foreign languages in the national curriculum. In contrast to many other nations, since 2004 in the UK it has not been compulsory to study a foreign language beyond primary school (nor are foreign language subjects even available in all primary schools), the consequence of which has been up to a 49% drop in the number of students passing a GCSE in a foreign language8, which will have serious repercussions on the global skillset of the nation’s future workforce.

Non-departmental public bodies (NDPB)

        Funded by governmental departments but operating strictly separately from those departments are bodies such as the British Council and the International Citizen Service (ICS), which focus on intercultural partnerships and projects of a collaborative relational nature. The opportunities offered by the British Council are abundant, ranging from paid Language Assistant teaching roles worldwide, specific study and work programmes in priority countries such as India and China, exchanges for specific creative sectors and more. Similarly the International Citizen Service arranges and funds volunteering placements for thousands of young Britons each year to 25 developing countries through 11 charitable partners. Two major advantages of these organisations is that they have “operational independence and work at arm’s length from government”9, while having a mandate to encourage wide participation from all socio-economic backgrounds and the public funds to ensure that no cultural programme is out of reach due to affordability. Strict nationality and age criteria apply and therefore eligibility requirements may be a barrier to some young people in the UK, as may the length of these programmes. Ranging from 3-month volunteering placements to year-long language assistantships, these often require a significant contribution of time, and some young people engaged in studies or work may struggle to fit these opportunities into their other commitments. Interestingly, while the British Council enjoys a very strong reputation abroad, it is relatively unknown among young people in the UK, despite its creation over 80 years ago in 1934. Therefore the British Council should widen access to its opportunities through focusing on increasing awareness levels domestically. The ICS struggles with a similar issue of low recognition in the UK, more understandable however due to its relatively recent creation in 2011.

Educational institutions and schools

          At primary and secondary school level, the slack in foreign language provision nationally is often picked up by individual schools’ initiatives to arrange short exchanges with schools in other countries, although these are at a cost to the parents and are understandably limited purely to those families with sufficient disposable income, thus excluding children from lower socio-economic groups. In higher education the picture is rosier, with the option to defer a university place in order to take a “gap year” embedded into the UCAS application process. It has been estimated that as many as 25% of university students choose to take a gap year first, which is commonly used to travel abroad for an extended period of time. The concept of a gap year is widely recognised by universities as a fruitful endeavour prior to beginning a degree. Universities in the UK also accept international students from all across the globe, enabling cultural exchange to take place on campus in the UK.

         The UK’s universities also engage universally in some element of international exchange, encouraging their students to spend a semester or a year abroad at a partner institution or indeed on an industrial placement year in relevant employment both in the UK and abroad. More could be done to improve the uptake of these opportunities, through improving the quality of careers services and increasing the number of support staff. Furthermore it must be remembered that access to higher education is a pre-requisite for these options, meaning that they are not open to all young people in the UK. Other UK-based opportunities for intercultural interaction are offered by universities who offer one- or two-month-long summer schools, which attract predominantly international students and offer fertile ground for cross-cultural learning, an example of which is the London School of Economics Summer School.

Non-governmental organisations and charities

          Looking at the third sector, we see a number of charities indirectly focusing on global citizenship through facilitating opportunities for young people to travel abroad and, while their primary goals may not be cultural exchange, they indirectly achieve the same result. Take for example the 11 charities that deliver the ICS volunteering programme in 25 developing countries, such as Raleigh International and VSO: a pre-requisite of the programme is that UK volunteers be matched 1-to-1 with an in-country volunteer for 12 weeks, living together with a local host family in a remote community. The 11 charities place great emphasis on the development of active global citizens, and so far since formation in 2011 they have involved over 7,000 young people from the UK and over 7,000 from abroad10.

          Another relatively young charity that facilitates cultural exchange through an annual summit held around the world is One Young World (OYW), who gather together nearly 2,000 young leaders from 180 different countries each year to discuss pressing global issues in the presence of some of the world’s most eminent leaders from political, business and not-for-profit spheres. From Johannesburg in 2013 to Dublin in 2014 to Bangkok in 2015, each year’s summit enables young people from around the world to learn not only about a different country but to interact with the 179 other nationalities present. Both of these examples require the participant to pass a selection process and secure sponsorship or fundraise to attend the event (£800 for ICS and £2,655 for OYW). By ensuring the money required is sourced through sponsorship or fundraising, it should ensure that no young person is prohibited from participating due to cost. One criticism of these two very admirable schemes however is that they are both merit-based and fairly competitive to enter.

Public and private sector employers

                Cultural exchanges are not purely limited to those in education or volunteering, and encouragingly there are an increasing number of employers who are investing in their young talent by posting them overseas on short-term international assignments, where they work in a foreign culture and are able to develop an international skillset while earning a living. In the public sector we see examples from the Civil Service Fast Stream’s graduate scheme in the FCO and from the British Council’s Future Leaders scheme, and in the private sector, large corporations like Telefónica and Land Rover have incorporated international rotations into some of their graduate schemes. These are understandably a very attractive option to graduates, many of whom are keen to begin repayments on their student debt, as these graduate schemes are one of the few opportunities that actually remunerate participants as well.

          On a smaller scale, we see a certain number of young people moving abroad seasonally to work in the service industry, for example as au pairs, bar staff, waiters, hotel staff and English tutors. These short-term opportunities often conveniently fit into the academic calendar, allowing students to experience another culture during university summer holidays while earning money to cover their expenses. Organised either on an ad hoc basis or through niche websites or agencies, they normally require few specific skills and are therefore open to almost anyone, however whether they are equally well-known and advertised to everyone is debatable.

The travel & tourism industry

          51% of adults travelled beyond the British Isles in 200811 and the UK’s population is fortunate to have a very developed tradition of foreign travel, with affordable short-haul air connections to many European countries, all of which are easily accessible to British citizens through the EU’s freedom of movement policy. This penchant for foreign travel has cultivated a strong outbound travel industry and in 2014 Britain spent £24.4bn on foreign leisure travel, with the average UK traveller taking 7 international flights per year12. The country’s geographical proximity to other cultures, the travel industry’s plethora of options and omnipresent advertising, not to mention the extensive list of worldwide destinations available direct from the global hubs of Heathrow and Gatwick airports, are great advantages to young Britons. While the UK is fortunate to have such a developed travel industry, it is not environmentally sustainable for every single Briton to fly abroad several times a year, given the carbon emissions involved in air travel, which understandably is the dominant mode of transport for this island nation. The diversity of cultures that can be reached through the travel industry is also highly dependent on the individual’s budget and time available, with budget often being limited for young people, but with ample free time for travel permitted by the academic calendar.

The media

         While the traditional media constitute an important channel for raising awareness of foreign cultures to the population as a whole, through documentaries, films, television, literature and the news, I would argue that when specifically analysing young people, the new media now hold a much bigger sway over their opinions and actions. 93% of 16 – 24-year-olds in the UK have at least one social media profile and 20% of adults use Facebook (the most popular social network) more than 10 times a day13. The content that young Britons see and interact with on social media, through following travel or lifestyle bloggers, or other so-called “influencers” on networks such as Instagram, is a powerful source of inspiration and direction that should not be underestimated. The new media offer an invaluable resource for organisations such as the British Council and NGOs to tap into, in order to raise awareness of their cultural exchanges. With an increased presence on social networks and closer co-ordination with key influencers and bloggers, there is real scope to emphasise the importance of intercultural understanding among the upcoming generation.

         Not only can the new media inspire travel and learning about foreign cultures, social networks and new mobile technologies can provide a powerful platform to facilitate cross-cultural communication worldwide to anyone with access to an internet connection, allowing a subsequent continuation of the relationships fostered during cultural exchanges. Fortunately the lingua franca of the internet is currently English, meaning that the country’s relative weakness in language skills is not a barrier to intercultural interaction.

Civil society

The societal norm of so many people travelling abroad so frequently is beneficial to young Britons, as they often grow up surrounded by role models who inspire them to follow suit. When friends, family and personal connections offer emotional or financial support for cultural exchange opportunities, such as the widely accepted phenomenon of a gap year, then young people are much more likely to participate. However in small pockets of the country and in certain communities or religions (eg. gypsies, Muslims), families who operate on a more tight-knit basis may actually discourage or prevent their children from travelling too far afield and therefore these pockets must be taken into account when the previously mentioned actors are creating strategies to widen accessibility to their cultural exchange programmes.


From my analysis of the key actors involved in cultural exchange for young people in the UK, I believe it is possible to categorise them into two groups:

(i) Essential providers and facilitators: the organisations that directly fund and organise initiatives for cultural exchange. For example:

• International institutions
• Governmental departments
• Non-departmental public bodies
• Educational institutions and schools
• Non-governmental organisations and charities
• Public and private sector employers

(ii) Necessary components of a healthy environment for cultural exchanges: the background conditions required to create appetite for cultural exchange and support the provision of cultural exchange. For example:

• The travel and tourism industry
• The media
• Civil society

          From my brief analysis in this essay I can conclude that, while the first group of essential providers and facilitators are clearly the primary instrumental actors in the UK, they also depend on the three elements in the second group to cultivate an environment that is receptive to and indeed eager to engage in the opportunities that they provide and facilitate.

          Within the first group, the actors appear to be primarily from the public sector and NGOs, with the private sector holding a comparatively smaller role. On reflection, this could be related to the fact that the primary aim of the private sector when involved in cultural exchange is usually something other than cultural exchange, for example profit, productivity, employee development or best practice exchange. Therefore cultural exchange is a fortunate by-product of the private sector’s activities in this sphere, but not the main driver, and thus these activities are less readily identifiable to those looking specifically for cultural exchange opportunities.

          Another difference between the two groups is the time required for these actors to develop. While a government could introduce a cultural exchange programme such as ICS in a matter of months, or set up a cultural relations organisation such as the British Council within a year or two, in contrast the second group consists of three organic surrounding factors (the travel and tourism industry, the media and civil society) which have been developed over a much longer period of time and which a government couldn’t easily influence or create itself. It is important to recognise that an official cultural relations organisation cannot easily exist in isolation and is also dependent on other actors, such as an established travel and tourism industry, an interested media and a receptive civil society, an absence of which would likely spell failure for the initiative. It would be interesting to conduct a more comprehensive study of the three background actors specifically in the context of their role in cultural diplomacy, as the analysis provided here in this short essay is only summary.

         In my analysis of each of the nine actors I have tried to briefly capture the nature of their activities, presenting a handful of examples and some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each, particularly in relation to their accessibility to young people in the UK. Some of the barriers I have identified, and which therefore could be areas for improvement for the key actors, include: cost; availability of time; foreign language skills; age limits; access to higher education; low awareness of these opportunities; family commitments and competitiveness of application process. Of these eight main barriers, I consider “cost” and “low awareness of the opportunities” to be the main areas for improvement in order to widen participation and encourage diversity of participants. With these improvements however I believe that the UK would provide a good example for other nations to emulate in terms of the provision for cultural exchange.



1 Cynthia P. Schneider, “The Unrealized Potential of Cultural Diplomacy: “Best Practices” and What Could Be, If Only…”, in The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, Winter (2009), p276.
2 As mentioned by Ann Buckle, “The New Diplomacy: Devising a Relational Model of Public Diplomacy”, in Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, Vol 3:2 (2012), p22.
3 Schneider, “The Unrealized Potential of Cultural Diplomacy: “Best Practices” and What Could Be, If Only…”, p277.
4 See , accessed March 1, 2016.
5 See , accessed March 1, 2016.
6 Data for 2013/14. See , accessed March 1, 2016.
7 See , accessed March 1, 2016.
8 See , accessed March 1, 2016.
9 Sharon Memis, “Showing the Power of “Cultural Relations”: Strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation at the British Council” in Public Diplomacy Magazine, Issue 3, Winter (2010), p57.
10 See , accessed March 1, 2016.
11 See , accessed March 1, 2016.
12 See, accessed March 1, 2016.

13  See, accessed March 1, 2016.


  1. I found this a really interesting read, and would have to agree that awareness of these schemes is much lower than it could (and should!) be – a bigger emphasis on languages in schools from a younger age would undoubtedly help students engage with other cultures and perhaps make them more receptive to foreign exchange programmes later on. Regarding year abroad options, I think the main problem there lies in the fact that so many university students are still oblivious to the opportunities they have – and even initiatives like the British Council’s language assistantship scheme can be done by non-language students, so long as they have AS level or equivalent in the language of the country they want to go to.


    • Thank you and I’m glad you agree about the low awareness – it’s such a missed opportunity and I know so many people who regret not doing a year abroad or not taking part in a certain programme before the cut-off age. These initiatives need more publicising!


  2. This post was definitely a different tone to your usual blogs but I found it really interesting! It’s such a shame that so few people jump on the opportunity to do a cultural exchange when they are so accessible for people living in the UK. I was really surprised to hear that the Erasmus programme receives proportionately fewer participants from the UK than other member states. You highlight the slack in foreign language provision at primary and secondary school level and I genuinely think this is one of the main reasons less UK students take part in cultural exchanges. Our education system places so much less emphasis on acquiring a second language because English is so widely spoken and I think means less children develop a more global perspective and less of a desire to travel and live in other countries. Yes, there are a lot of short exchanges with schools in other countries but, as you say, these are often expensive thus excluding children from lower socio-economic groups and they just aren’t long enough experiences.


    • Thanks for your comment Anna and I’m glad you enjoyed reading it despite its rather serious tone. And teaching of foreign languages in schools is a huge part of the issue – as a linguist I’ve written on that a fair bit, as the UK seems to be going backwards in that respect with fewer and fewer language students every year!


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