Ministers to consider mobility measures as countries fall short of target

Ministers from 47 European countries will be warned that they risk missing their goal of at least 20% of graduates studying or training abroad, when they assess progress towards the Bologna goals in Bucharest later this month.

They will be asked to sign up to a pledge to expand mobility funding and enable portability of grants, loans and scholarships provided by European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries.

Mobility is seen as a key instrument for developing the EHEA, but currently all but two countries show an incoming mobility rate of under 10%, according to an internal report obtained by University World News.

Only four countries – Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France and Ireland – manage to exceed 5% while 16 countries fail to reach 1%.

Outward mobility rates of graduates from within the EHEA are also very low, with a weighted average slightly below 2%. The rate for the majority of countries is less than %.

The warning will be presented to the ministers’ conference in a report prepared by the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) composed of representatives from the 47 signatory countries and the European Union as a full member, plus international organisations with observer status.

The EHEA was established by the Bologna process to facilitate mobility of students, graduates and higher education staff; to prepare students for their future careers and for life as active citizens in democratic societies, and support their personal development; and to offer broad access to high-quality higher education, based on democratic principles and academic freedom.

In the foreword to the report, Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner responsible for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, says: “This conference is taking place at a difficult time for Europe, with unemployment reaching record levels in many parts of the continent, and youth unemployment being a particular concern.

“It is a timely moment to ask how the Bologna process in higher education can help in finding solutions to the crisis, and to assess progress after a decade of effort in implementing reforms.”

She said that Bologna had achieved remarkable results over its first decade, driving positive change in European higher education.

“The foundations of the EHEA are now in place, enabling better quality education with greater opportunities for mobility for all. The Bologna Process is a European success story of which we should be proud. However, there is much more to be done.”

The report paints a mixed picture of progress on access to higher education with a general increase in participation rates offset by low participation rates of first-generation migrants in some countries. While admissions systems have become more flexible in Western Europe, even there only one in 10 students enters higher education via an alternative pathway.

There has, however, been rapid progress on quality assurance in teaching and learning, although not enough emphasis on student support services and research. There has also been near-complete implementation of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), but the linking of credits to outcome has yet to be completed.

The report warns that there are “perceived and real obstacles to mobility, which must be dealt with in the coming years”. It says: “This is all the more important, because the perception and impact of such obstacles varies by social background. If left unchecked, increases in mobility rates may lead to a new dimension of social disparity.”

Vassiliou says: “Precisely because we are living through a time of crisis, I am convinced that now is the moment to step up both the pace and the direction of change.”

The 20% mobility target was adopted by EHEA ministers in the 2009 Leuven-Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué. It includes the two major forms of mobility: degree mobility, where a student takes a full degree programme in another country; and credit mobility, where a part of a student's study programme is undertaken in another country.

Statistical information on credit mobility should be added to information on degree mobility when assessing true progress towards the 20% benchmark. The current projection of short-term trends under the Erasmus programme anticipates 7% by 2020, while other sources of reliable credit mobility data still need to be identified.

The BFUG report says mobility is also closely linked to the attractiveness of higher education institutions and is a main tool of internationalisation.

The BFUG established a working group on mobility in Stockholm in September 2009 with a view to drafting a Mobility Strategy 2020 for the EHEA. The version being put to ministers for adoption at the end of this month focuses on the importance of mobility and internationalisation in higher education, and outlines key action required by the EHEA countries to pave the way for more high-quality mobility exchanges and fewer obstacles across the continent.

“Our demand for more balanced mobility is directed particularly at degree mobility since it can have a sustained effect on the host and home countries, can facilitate capacity building and cooperation and may lead to brain gain on the one side and to brain drain on the other,” the proposed strategy says. It will also urge member countries to seek better-balanced mobility with countries outside the EHEA.

EHEA countries are being asked to agree to take specific measures to dismantle obstacles to mobility. These include expanding mobility funding and enabling a wide-reaching portability of grants, loans and scholarships provided by EHEA countries.

Ministers will be asked to work with higher education institutions to increase the quality and relevance of mobility periods, ensuring that they contribute to high academic standards, to the employability as well as the linguistic and intercultural competence of graduates and to the excellence of academic staff.

The European Union will be asked to secure adequate mobility with appropriate funding through its education programmes.

Member countries will be asked to identify problems for mobility, such as rules for the issuing of visas, residence and work permits in the higher education field, and take measures to ease them.

The European Students Union (ESU) has urged the BFUG to overcome obstacles to the free movement of students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff. It says financing, recognition, language and cultural barriers, state regulations inside and outside the EHEA, the quality of study period and many other legal or informal barriers to mobility should be removed and international opportunities related to mobility should be made public.

Allan Päll, ESU chairperson, commenting on the BFUG report, told University World News: “We urge education ministers to step up a gear and finally to come up with some real solutions to the hampering implementation of the Bologna Process.

"Better and more opportunities to learn in another country will lead to a higher quality of education throughout the whole European continent and will give young people more possibilities on the job market. This will contribute to economic growth.”

The strategy proposes an elaboration of the definition of mobility target, calling for it to be measured in all three cycles of the Bologna process – graduate, masters and doctoral levels or equivalent – and for it to include periods spent abroad corresponding to at least 15 ECTS credit points or three months within any of the three cycles (credit mobility) as well as stays in which a degree is obtained abroad (degree mobility).

Although staff mobility is mentioned in all Bologna communiqués, the situation – compared to student mobility – is less clear. The report argues that it is important to agree on the scope and definition of staff mobility. Currently, only a few countries set quantitative targets towards staff mobility. Based on data available from the Erasmus programme, incoming staff mobility affects relatively low numbers of staff.

“Better monitoring and tackling of identified obstacles is also essential if countries are to foster staff mobility across Europe,” the report concludes.