August 7, 2019

Student international mobility: The way forward

International programmes play a crucial role in students’ life. The job market requires those international competencies and cross-sectorial skills that only an experience abroad can guarantee.

Much more than past generations, many European students currently enjoy opportunities to gain first-hand study- or job-experience abroad or to pursue a degree elsewhere. The range of non-academic opportunities include volunteering, jobs and traineeships (short, yea-long, multi-annual). So far, however, University students have been the main beneficiaries of all funding opportunities provided by European institutions.

One of the most wide-ranging programmes is the Erasmus programme, since 2014 known as Erasmus+. It has been running for more than 30 years now. It kicked off as the “European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students”, launched by the European Commission (EC) on an initiative of AEGEE, a European students NGO. To give an idea: Between 2014 and 2020, According to the European Commission, in Europe and beyond its borders, more than 2 million Higher Education students, around 650.000 vocational education and training students and around 500.000 youth have benefitted from the program. Furthermore, around 25.000 students have attended joint master and more than 200.000 international master’s degrees.

In 2014, thanks to these results, the European Commission increased by 40% the budget share allocated to the Erasmus programmes, also extending the maximum mobility terms to 2 years.

Erasmus programmes are both highly selective and demanding, though. First, in order to apply, students should meet a threshold of academic requirements (such as a certain Grade Point Average – G.P.A), and abide to a family income cap. Second, students can enrol in the program just twice (one as an undergraduate, one as a graduate). Third, the mobility grant is legally binding. In the host academic institutions, students should pass exams and obtain a Transcript of Records of the European Credit Transfer System – ECTS. Actually, if one fails to meet the ECTS threshold, she could be could be excluded from the program. At the same time, the ECTS-system poses challenges to partner-institutions: issues with ECTS recognition are frequent, and there is still a long way to go for the full harmonisation of degrees, course-contents and exams across countries.

Often, Erasmus students can enrol in a very limited number of courses. Issues of this kind are more frequent in small and medium size universities, which struggle to have modules in English and cannot have a large variety of programmes. In this case, the burden is on the student’s shoulders. Exams taken abroad might be considered as “added or elective ECTS”; and, once back at her home institution, she might have to attend extra courses not to fail the year.

Besides lack of coordination between academic institutions, other barriers include language issues and funds, where monthly scholarships range between Euro 200 to Euro 700 (to go to non- European countries). Obviously, tiny scholarships affect mainly the poorest families, also because Erasmus is thought to be a partial support to living expenditures. Moreover, costs are covered through a forfeit system. Against this backdrop, some academic institutions have started co-sponsoring scholarships, but, without adequate harmonisation, practices of this kind may embitter inequalities between students and sending institutions.

However, the main issue is one of equality. Erasmus+ may have boosted personal careers and create a powerful, though numerically small, pro-European kernel of young and highly-educated citizens. On the other hand, it did not pave the way for a balanced and circular mobility, equally involving all members states and social groups. The main mobility flow is from the East to the West of the Union, with some 24.000 students a year applying for Western European Universities from Eastern-European ones. Moreover, we find imbalance of incoming students’ flows within countries, where top academic institutions tend to attract higher number of visitors. We might say that this is the outcome of the ever-increasing marketization of higher-education, where higher-education is considered as a service to be exchanged on the free market. One solution could be that of compensating time at less attractive institutions with higher scholarships and more flexible mobility grants.

Notwithstanding these problems, Erasmus+ is a success-programme, often considered as one of EU’s greatest achievements. However, Erasmus+ should be more vocal in pursuing the political goal to bring together European citizens into a single and, possibly, more equal and cohesive political community, maybe spurring exchanges in all directions.

Youth unemployment: a European priority
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About Federica De Giorgi

Federica De Giorgi

Federica De Giorgi is member of YouthMED since its foundation in 2011. She has been working at UNIMED, Mediterranean Universities Union, since 2015 as Project Manager Assistant. She owns a multi-year experience in management of EU funded projects for higher education and international cooperation in the Southern Mediterranean Region. She holds a Postgraduate Master Degree in European Project Planning and Management at PIXEL International school and a Master and Bachelor Degrees in Classics at Roma Tre University.

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