More than in 1 in 3 people believe they would have a better job if they had spent time studying or living abroad, according to new research by the British Council.

The poll, conducted for the British Council by Populus, found that 79% of UK adults have not lived or studied abroad for 6 months or more. Of those, 34% believe their career prospects would have been improved if they had – equating to 17 million people. Less than a quarter believe that their prospects would have been unaffected.

The sense of regret is especially strong among under-25s, with 54% believing their lack of international experience has held them back. Geographically, people in Northern Ireland are most likely to feel that their lack of time spent abroad has harmed their prospects (53%), followed by London (42%) and the North-East (41%).

The British Council commissioned the research as part of its work to help young people in the UK develop the skills they need to compete in a global economy. The organisation’s programmes include the century-old English Language Assistant scheme, with more than 2500 places available for native English speakers to spend up to a year on paid placements in 14 countries, assisting in English language teaching. Famous former Language Assistants include JK Rowling, Alastair Campbell and Sophie Raworth. The British Council also runs the Erasmus programme – which enables UK university students to study or work in 33 European countries.

Dr Jo Beall, the British Council’s Director of Education and Society said: “The good news is that this poll shows people are beginning to recognise how vital international skills are for enhancing their career. Research last year revealed that more UK employers look for international awareness and experience above academic qualifications. But the bad news is that not enough people in the UK are taking opportunities to gain international experience. That needs to change if the UK will successfully compete in the global economy.”

Ben Chatfield, from Wimbledon, was a Language Assistant in France in 1994, and now runs his own successful marketing agency, OscarMike. Ben said: “My international experience, at a relatively young age, changed the course of my life entirely. It got me a job in a massive international advertising agency, and I then worked extensively in France. My French speaking got me my first proper client when I created my own business. A French client – Hermes – is the bedrock of my business now.”

Ben has gone on to write a book, Mediterranean Homesick Blues, about his experiences abroad.

Lucy Ling, from Manchester, worked as a Language Assistant in 2003, and now regularly uses foreign languages in her job. Lucy said: “Learning languages and spending time abroad working and studying has had a huge impact on my career: thanks to my French and Italian I now have a job managing contracts for a leading holiday company and get paid to travel all over Italy. My experience overseas not only helped to develop my technical language skills but also gave me the confidence to pursue an interesting and fulfilling career.”

Jo Beall added: “Our recent research showed that while almost two-thirds of students felt they had an international outlook, they failed to see the potential career advantages to be gained from international experiences. We are working with government and businesses to try and provide more opportunities for gaining international skills, and make students aware that this is the most valuable work experience of all. It’s heartening therefore that there are 2500 opportunities available to get paid work experience through the English Language Assistant scheme, and I would strongly encourage anyone who wants to give their career prospects a boost to apply.”