Big changes in student mobility needed, says LERU

Europe’s top research universities are pushing for more structured forms of student mobility, to build on the achievements of the Erasmus exchange programme, which they say is reaching its limits. Newer forms of ‘networked’ and ‘embedded’ student mobility are needed.

These forms of student mobility will be costly and will possibly require difficult decisions and commitments from institutions, governments and the European Commission, says the League of European Research Universities, or LERU, which represents the top 21 research-intensive universities in Europe.

But such schemes are “an important step towards the modernisation of Europe’s higher education institutions”, says a new LERU advice paper, “International Curricula and Student Mobility”.

The paper starts from the generally accepted proposition that student mobility “plays an increasingly crucial role in science, technology, industry, business, politics, culture and all possible dimensions of a global society”.

But it goes on to recognise that “current educational programmes at European universities are often not sufficiently well developed to provide each student with such awareness".

Three basic mobility models are identified in the paper:
  • • Exchange mobility, where students themselves choose to have an experience abroad for a short or longer period of time – the Erasmus model.
  • • Networked mobility and curricula, where a university joins a network with several partners and sends its students for a certain period of time to one or more partner institutions.
  • • Embedded mobility and curricula, where a limited number of partners form a consortium in which students ‘rotate’ and follow parts of their educational trajectory in two or more partner institutions.
Alternatives to the ‘student chooses’ model

The important new point is the creation of clear alternatives to the current ‘student chooses’ model so as to bring in systems where professors have the important say.

Not only European but also national policy-makers will have to make an effort to achieve this, says the LERU paper.

Those with the power to decide in this area “should strive to remove existing barriers that hamper more structural cooperation between universities in different European countries in the field of student mobility,” it says.

“These barriers can, for example, be related to degree recognition, the portability of grants and loans or national qualification frameworks,” it adds.

Professor Bart de Moor, vice-rector international at KU Leuven University and lead author of the paper, said the document was aimed at the European Commission “because we need administrative support and subsidies and we’re very much dependent on the goodwill of the commission”.

De Moor told University World News that there was a lot of “hidden” administration, even in the current Erasmus scheme. “In my own university we need about 20 full-time administrative people just for Erasmus,” he said.

It was possible, however, that some universities would go it alone. “Among the members of LERU there is already a lot of interest in starting with the embedded scheme anyway for some of the masters, even without financial support from the European Commission.”

LERU makes it clear that its proposals are consistent with the commission’s plans for Erasmus for All, which is designed to support new and more integrated forms of mobility.

Some challenges and benefits

But the league warns that the shift from conventional exchange programmes to networking and embedding will make management more complex.

“This is something that academics who take an initiative in networked or embedded mobility should take into account.

“Practical issues, especially for structured mobility schemes, include the solution of problems related to different tuition fees, the synchronisation of timelines in coping with different calendars for the academic year, alignment of credit and diploma requirements and logistic issues like housing etc,” LERU says.

“In other words, the benefits will not come without an additional effort, for which sufficient administrative, organisational and logistical support should be available.”

To guarantee the viability of more integrated forms of mobility – and to help universities cope with the current Erasmus programme – “LERU pleads for the attribution of a substantial overhead cost in the relevant parts of Erasmus for All and for additional funding of the administrative and logistical support for institutions participating in European mobility programmes.”

And what will the benefits be?

“A typical objective of networked curricula is to offer students a broader variety of subject areas or specialisations than the home university can offer on its own,” says LERU.

“Next to this, networked mobility creates opportunities for students to benefit from an international experience by educational programmes abroad, which are closely related to international research or innovation activities and communities, in which the home university is taking part.

“Networked mobility can also serve institutional goals. By sharing complementary subject areas, the profile of a curriculum can be broadened and strengthened. This leads to sustainable collaborations and networking with partner universities.”