The promotion of temporary study abroad in Europe is generally viewed as the most visible "success story" among internationalisation policies of higher education, and the European Union's ERASMUS programme is certainly the flagship in this regard, writes Bernd Wächter in the preface of a new book, The Professional Value of ERASMUS Mobility: The impact of international experience on former students' and on teachers' careers, by Kerstin Janson, Harald Schomburg and Ulrich Teichler.
Many policy reports praise ERASMUS for having enabled over two million students to study in another European country. It is apparent that most of these students had an eye-opening experience of learning from contrast.
Or as Ulrich Teichler, the higher education researcher most active in evaluation studies of ERASMUS likes to put it: students returning from an ERASMUS period in another European country "do not trust a single professor and a single paradigm anymore". This underscores how cultural and academic learning through temporary study abroad are closely intertwined.
ERASMUS was probably more frequently in the limelight and more thoroughly scrutinised by means of evaluation studies than any other higher education policy measure and programme in Europe.
The widespread opinion, shared by almost everybody, that the programme was and remains a success story, was never misused as a pre-text for simply continuing on the beaten path. Instead, it worked as a challenge to maintain the level of success amidst expansion and possible threats of routine and to enhance its quality.
The analysis of the first seven years of ERASMUS was published by the European Commission in 1997 under the title The ERASMUS Experience. The authors, Ulrich Teichler and Friedhelm Maiworm, named areas where there remained room for improvement.
For example, many students reported problems in properly planning their course of study due to relatively late decisions for ERASMUS support, and one fifth of them faced administrative problems in the host country, financial problems and problems with accommodation. Moreover, recognition of the study abroad period upon return by the home institutions was often lukewarm and led more frequently to an extension of the overall period of study than the formal recognition seemed to suggest.
Presenting the results from various surveys, the part of the overall evaluation study of the SOCRATES Programme of 2000 devoted to ERASMUS and higher education was published in 2002 in the series ACA Papers on International Cooperation in Education, under the title ERASMUS in the SOCRATES Programme: Findings of an evaluation study.
The editor, Ulrich Teichler, noted that this study, again funded by the European Commission, confirmed that the strengths as well as the not negligible weaknesses had remained more or less unchanged. At the time, I wrote in the preface: "...the overriding tendency of the findings is one of continuity, despite the revolutionary fervour of the reforms of the mid-1990s. It almost appears as if the programme has a will of its own, which gently resists or cushions off initiatives aimed at massive change, be they inspired or misinformed".
Since 2000, no comprehensive evaluation study of ERASMUS has been undertaken. Instead, studies on a smaller scale, often also relying more strongly on qualitative methods, were commissioned by national governments or initiated by individual scholars.
It might well be that the earlier repeated findings of continuity did lower the expectation that new large-scale studies would lead to new insights. However, the European Commission did decide to commission a new study on a specific aspect of the ERASMUS Programme, that of its 'professional value'.
Ulrich Teichler, until recently Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (previously the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Work) of the University of Kassel in Germany, again took the lead in this exercise. The study could put the emphasis on both continuity and change over time, since the earlier studies mentioned above had also addressed the careers of former mobile students and the new study also included retrospective questions on the ERASMUS study experiences.
The present study points out a paradox of continuity and change. The immediate value of the ERASMUS experience seems to be unchanged: the eye-opening value of a contrasting learning experience in another European country.
But former ERASMUS students of the academic year 2000 report a less impressive career impact five years later than prior generations of ERASMUS students did: a lesser privilege in access to visibly international job tasks and a lesser advantage in the job search in general.
Finally the number of graduates believing they have an advantage in income and status compared to their non-mobile counterparts is no longer higher than those perceiving a disadvantage.
The authors of the study, Kerstin Janson, Harald Schomburg and Ulrich Teichler, argue that internationalisation in general has progressed in Europe so much that the ERASMUS experience is bound to loose its exceptionality over time. They draw the conclusion that more ambitious curricular thrusts might be needed to turn a temporary study period abroad again into a clear "value added".
ACA is proud to be able to publish the present study in its series. Like the earlier publications by Ulrich Teichler, in the field of programme evaluation and elsewhere, it is the work of an independent mind of rare analytical acumen. It deserves to be read and it would be in the best interest of those in charge of the ERASMUS Programme to take its findings and recommendations very seriously. So that the success story can continue...
* Bernd Wächter is Director of the Academic Cooperation Association, Brussels.
* The Professional Value of ERASMUS Mobility is published by Lemmens in Bonn, Germany, one of the ACA Papers on International Cooperation in Education. The book can be ordered at: www.lemmens.de. Orders via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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