Student mobility - it's about "choice, capital and conditions"

27 juni 2019

How can we make student mobility accessible to all? We discussed the drivers and barriers to student mobility on 25 June at an event co-organised by the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the EU, Neth-ER, the Mission of Norway to the EU and NorCore. 

On 25 June, the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the EU, Neth-ER, the Mission of Norway to the EU and NorCore (the Norwegian Contact Office for Research, Innovation and Education) co-organised a seminar on student mobility. Like the Netherlands, Norway is one of the programme countries of Erasmus+, the European programme for education, training, youth and sport.

The purpose of the seminar was to explore and discuss the drivers and barriers for students in higher education to choose and go through with a study abroad experience, as well as to discuss how European higher education institutions can make even better use of the opportunities in the Erasmus+ programme.

Mobility, the core activity in the Erasmus+ programme, contributes to equip young people with labour market skills, as well as language skills. A study abroad experience raises cultural understanding and awareness of common European values and is important to the participants’ personal development. The value of the mobility schemes goes beyond the goals for the education policies.

During the seminar, the Commission (Elena Tegovska, DG EAC) gave some options to make study mobility more inclusive, for instance through more flexible formats / blended mobility, short-term mobility, improving language support, automatic recognition of study periods abroad, facilitating affordable housing and by using cross-sectoral inclusion strategies.

The European Students Union (ESU) (Hélène Mariaud, Equality Coordinator) stated that currently, only few students with disabilities are participating in the Erasmus+ programme. The next programme seems to be more inclusive, but a lot will depend on the National Agencies for Erasmus+ to make inclusiveness a reality in the future. Grants for studying abroad should be efficient and cover really for living costs; there should be differentiation for different regions. Students with different socio-economic backgrounds should all get equal chances.

Mads Gravås of the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research mentioned that international cooperation is a prerequisite for meeting global challenges and is connected to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Norwegian Ministry is currently preparing a white paper on student mobility in higher education. The central objective and ambition is a ‘cultural change’: study mobility should become default, by working with an opt-out agreement. The ambitious goal in the long run is 50% student mobility. Student mobility should be an embedded and integrated part in all study programmes. Also, outgoing mobility to non-English speaking countries should increase; language support should help to reach this, learning outcomes of mobility actions should be clearly defined in the diplomas. The Erasmus+ programme should be more efficient on an administrative level to enable having more participants.

Lene Krogh Baldersheim (Diku – the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education) supported the plan for the white paper with data and evidence-base, also reflecting on how to reach the ‘maybe-students’, for instance by using ambassadors. She also mentioned the important role of international coordinators within higher education institutions in order to reach the ambitious goal of 50%.

Incoming student mobility in the Netherlands is relatively high. The amount of courses in English offered by Dutch institutions and the (relatively) low study fees make the Netherlands an interesting destination for foreign students. Regarding outgoing student mobility, the Netherlands meets the European benchmark for credit mobility, but diploma mobility is still a challenge. 

Liefke Reitsma from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science explained that the Netherlands’ ministry aims at making outgoing mobility more inclusive, in order to reach more than the usual suspects. Inclusion is one of the national priorities in the Erasmus+ programme. The ministry is working with different stakeholders to get a better understanding of which students do or do not become mobile during their study and why, in order to be able to tailor better to their needs. The international higher education context at home can be used as a stepping stone for later mobility.

Jos Beelen, Professor of Global Learning at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, explained how we find ourselves in a transition process to an internationalized curriculum for all students. Also, if every academic is involved in international cooperation, they could all be advocates to this end. Beelen discussed a ‘stratification’ of mobility, ranging from ‘classic’ student mobility, aiming for (potentially) all students, to mobility of educational developers, targeting all lecturers. We shouldn’t consider ‘internationalisation at home’ and ‘internationalisation abroad’ to be very divided. Jos Beelen also mentioned the importance of creating a mobility mindset through the curriculum in primary and secondary education.

Neth-ER, representing the Dutch knowledge community in Brussels, underscored the crucial importance of investing further in the European Union’s education programme in order to build a strong European knowledge economy. To this end, Erasmus should reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and target underrepresented groups, in order to make Erasmus truly accessible for all. 

Jurgen Rienks, director of Neth-ER as of 1 July, mentioned three main concepts: choice, capital and conditions. The choice for student mobility is no longer solely a decision of individuals, but also of higher education institutions. Capital (to be understood in the sense of social capital) implies helping those not necessarily aiming for a study abroad experience. There is a lot to be gained by making better use of the opportunities of the Erasmus+ programme. The third ‘c’ is of conditions: the European Education Area is key to help students to go abroad and get their study period recognized once they get back; quality assurance and trust in each other’s systems’ quality is key as well. European universities can enhance more structured cooperation between institutions. On a more practical level, grants should be sufficient.

During the discussion between the panel of speakers and the audience, several aspects of mobility were discussed further. The European Student Network pointed at the original and ultimate goal of Erasmus+: ‘building Europe’. Not only formal learning outcomes are important, but also informal and non-formal learning outcomes. Getting to know each other outside the classroom is maybe even more important for that goal.

Short-term mobility was considered by different participants to be a, but not THE answer to making mobility more inclusive. Both the Norwegian and the Dutch ministries emphasized that it’s quality before quantity. Short-term mobility can be a stepping stone for long-term mobility, and it can make people choose for a study abroad experience who would, for example for practical reasons, not be able to go on a long-term mobility scheme.

The problem of housing was mentioned several times and was acknowledged to currently be a key barrier and to be a basic condition to make inclusive mobility a reality. Local coordination is important to solve housing issues, and European coordination (for instance on how semesters are organized) could play a role as well.

Lastly, international (outside the EU) study exchanges can be valuable, but Neth-ER stressed that the opportunities for mobility within Europe are far from being exhausted.

As a wrap-up, moderator Irina Ferencz, deputy director of the Brussels-based Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), concluded that mobility ‘is not just mobility’, but can be so much more, that the remaining barriers (and possible solutions) are multiple, and that changing students’ needs require flexibility in the instruments.

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