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Student mobility on the agenda

Nic Mitchell reports on moves by Ministers to encourage greater student mobility to strengthen the European Higher Education Area.

Student mobility was high on the agenda at the 2012 Bologna Process Ministerial Conference held in Bucharest at the end of April.

Held every three years, these ‘summits’ are designed to focus attention on creating a living and workable European Higher Education Area (EHEA) – a key plank in the educational revolution that government ministers wanted to sweep Europe when they launched the so-called ‘Process’ at a meeting in Bologna in June 1999.

Since then, progress has been slower than many predicted, particularly in terms of ‘tearing down the barriers’ to the movement of students and staff across national borders.

When they last met in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve in 2009, the Ministers set themselves the goal of 20% of European students spending at least three months studying in another country by 2020.

Ambitious target

While precise figures are notoriously difficult to obtain on outward student mobility, I do know from my own research that the British government estimated that less than 2% of UK domiciled students were enrolled in foreign tertiary education in 2010.  So, for the Brits at least, that is a ten-fold increase in outward mobility in a decade.

And not only do the Education Ministers want to see more students, early stage researchers, teachers and other staff in higher education going abroad to help Europe ‘internationalise’ themselves and their education systems and institutions – but they also want to see a better balance between inward and outward mobility.

That’s going to be another problem, especially for a country like the UK. The British Council reported last year that while there were 370,000 international students in the UK, there were just 33,000 UK students overseas.

So, what’s to be done?

Well, since the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve conference three years ago, a Mobility Working Group, chaired by Peter Greisler from Germany, has been trying to produce precise benchmarks to monitor progress, identify problems to a better balance of incoming and outgoing students and looking for examples of good practice.

They discovered structural, legal, financial and other obstacles to mobility of students and staff, such as:

  • financing of mobility (including portability of grants and loans and improved information on funding possibilities)
  • recognition, curricula, legal and administrative obstacles
  • language issues
  • lack of motivation and information.

They also found very diverse national mobility strategies and the perception of mobility obstacles, depending on the target group.

Among their conclusions was that Europe should prioritise learning mobility, not cultural exchange; and even where there are specific imbalances, mobility itself is good and therefore should not be restrained. But they did say action should be taken to avoid ‘brain gain, brain drain’ scenarios.

There is also the need to implement national / international mobility strategies with measurable indicators.

The most controversial point revolved around the minimum duration of mobility for the target. Despite some opposition from those wanting to record shorter periods, the Working Group stuck to its guns and decided to recommend only monitoring mobility experiences abroad worth at least 15 European credit transfer system (ECTS) credits, or three months in duration.

They also wanted quality assurance tools used for promoting mobility in the EHEA. ‘Academic staff members need to be part of the strategy – they can act as motivators and multipliers,’ the Working Group declared.

So, what does it all mean for higher education communicators?

Well, again looking at things from the UK, there’s been a flurry of activity since the Bucharest meeting, with the main newspapers read by academics focusing on Bologna for the first time in ages.

Mind, it wasn’t all positive! Peter Scott, a professor of higher education studies, at the London-based Institute of Education, provoked some of his academic colleagues in an ‘Opinion’ piece in The Guardian entitled: ‘A universities revolution that excites the world… except England.’

Perhaps, more positively, the British Universities and Science Minister David Willett told Times Higher Education (3 May, 2012) that he was “very pro student mobility”, adding: “I’m keen to encourage those who wish it to do some of their study overseas. If there are barriers, I want to remove them.”

The ‘Mobility for Better Learning’ strategy finally adopted agreed that all member countries develop and implement their own internationalisation and mobility strategies with concrete aims and measurable mobility targets.

It wants to include both the 15 ECTS credits or three months periods spent abroad, plus those who obtain their degree abroad in the 20% target, and to strive for ‘better balanced mobility in the EHEA’ – hence the flurry of activity by the UK.

It also wants to increase mobility ‘through improved information about study programmes’ and ‘shorter response times for international applications’ as well as better web-based information about study programmes.

The strategy also wants to explore the ‘potential of using common standards for the description of study programmes.’

And another job for us is to improve ‘the communication of the individual, institutional and social benefits of periods spent abroad’ – with the target audiences including parents, career advisors and students.’ And it calls for more regular research into the private and social returns of learning mobility, including better employability records of graduates who have studied abroad.

· The EUA produced its own report from Bucharest, which focused more on the need for ‘sustainable funding’ to enable Higher Education to be at the heart of efforts to overcome the economic crisis.

For more information:

The EHEA Mobility Strategy and the Bucharest Communiqué

EUA report from the conference

Peter Scott’s article in The Guardian: ‘A universities revolution that excites the world… except England.’

Times Higher Education article: ‘Willetts pledges partial grant to encourage overseas study’

My blog and views on Bologna