Questioning the student mobility imperative

I am not going to make myself popular with this article, which will deal with some myths in the debate about international student mobility. In order not to be misunderstood, I wish to state at the outset that I have been happily mobile almost all of my life and that I am a supporter of international academic mobility, even though a slightly sceptical one.

I cannot stress enough that there is no such thing as student mobility pure and simple. There are different forms of mobility - I call them 'mobilities' - which are driven by very different forces and intentions.

First, there is degree mobility, for an entire study programme. Second, there is credit mobility, for a half-year or a year like, for example, in the Erasmus programme.

Degree mobility is mainly 'vertical', from countries of a quantitatively or qualitatively lower level of provision into those with a higher level. Credit mobility is, in the main, 'horizontal', happening between countries with a similar quality in higher education.

Credit mobility is driven by a desire for a linguistically and culturally different experience - or, as the sociologist Ulrich Teichler once called it, "learning from contrast".

Degree mobility is fuelled by the attempt to get a better education than one could get at home. An international dimension is an accidental by-product in degree mobility, not something actively sought.

Perhaps these few remarks suffice to make it clear why one cannot make sweeping generalisations about 'mobility'. But this is exactly what is happening in the mobility discourse all the time.

Rising numbers?

The literature and debate on student mobility make one believe that mobility is constantly on the rise. Well, it is and it isn't. In 1975, there were 800,000 students of foreign nationality studying outside their country of citizenship. By 2011, this number had grown to 4.3 million.

Staggering growth? In absolute terms, yes. In relative terms, hardly. For total enrolment around the world went up by about the same factor. So we are still dealing with a very small minority of international enrolment (2%) globally.

Incoming degree mobility into European countries is a bit higher, around 4%, but this hides dramatic differences between single countries. If we excluded a small number of big 'importers' - among them the United Kingdom, Germany and France with large numbers - the European record would be decidedly worse.

We are devoting much attention to a not at all sizeable phenomenon. It appears that the late psychologist Paul Watzlawick's rule of human perception applies to international mobility as well: if all you have is a nail, the world appears to be made up of hammers exclusively.

On credit mobility, we have far fewer and less reliable quantative data than on degree mobility. We know the numbers in funding programmes such as Erasmus, or some of their national counterparts. Is that all, or are there a lot of 'free movers' around the world?

It is impossible to answer this question. We safely know, though, that the numbers in credit mobility are far below those in degree mobility. This is telling - or irritating - because the (continental) European discourse is mostly on credit mobility. Once again, we seem to direct our analytical efforts to a 'minority issue'.

In Europe in particular, increasing mobility is a key political concern. This applies to national governments, but equally to the European Union as a whole or to the - wider - European Higher Education Area (EHEA or 'Bologna area').

In their last meeting in 2011, the ministers of education of the Bologna signatory countries announced the target of a 20% share of outbound (degree plus credit) mobility, to be reached by 2020. The European Union followed suit, with exactly the same target. Other countries, including Germany and Austria, have outbound mobility targets of 50%.

Mobility is all the rage. In political talk at least.

To be fair, some countries are already near or above the target in reality as well.

The most striking example is Cyprus, the majority of whose citizens study outside of the country (degree mobility). But this is 'forced mobility'. Cyprus does not yet have enough higher education provision to accommodate its citizens. Germany, a more 'normal' case, comes close to the 20% target, though nowhere near the national 50% benchmark.

The mobility imperative

Why are European governments so in love with mobility, and setting such high (and often unattainable) targets? There are, of course, a number of benefits of mobility, which I will turn to in a moment.

But I believe I have discovered another reason, in the form of an anthropological assumption held by Europe's mobility policy-makers. This assumption reads roughly like this. Students in higher education are, by their nature, inclined to study abroad.

If they do not realise their mobility intention, there can be only two reasons. Either there are insuperable barriers in their way - among them lack of funds, uncertainties about recognition on return, linguistic deficits - or they suffer from a slight mental disorder, which we might label mobility resistance.

Mobility has become an 'imperative', to the extent that a Swedish student of medicine at the Karolinska Institute, which awards the Nobel prize in medicine, must feel guilty about not spending a semester or year at a much more 'pedestrian' institution outside of Sweden.

Now there are, of course, some perfectly legitimate benefits to be expected from student mobility. Let us look into them one by one.

First, there is the possibility of gains in academic quality, particularly in degree mobility from developing to developed higher education systems. Fine. Except that the flow might diminish if the developing countries build enough (good) capacity one day.

Second, language learning. No doubt this is true, but languages can be (and are being) learned through non-academic forms of mobility as well.

The same goes for intercultural learning. Intercultural awareness can be acquired through study abroad, though there are also reports of spectacular forms of breakdown of intercultural communication as a result of an unhappy study abroad experience.

More important, however is the fact that intense intercultural encounters can happen in non-academic settings as well. A friend's daughter had, in the course of only three years, relationships with a Pole, a Norwegian and a Portuguese. These were very intense intercultural experiences, no doubt, compared to common academic study.

You could make a case for public support of transnational dating agencies on these grounds. 'Erasmus romance' could be a good name for the new funding programme I have in mind.


What other good reasons do we have to support international student mobility?

Enhanced employability for graduates, particularly on the international labour market. This is no doubt true, although studies on the professional impact of study abroad have recently noted 'declining returns' of mobility and, five years after graduation, hardly any differences in salary levels. But this could be due to the fact that study abroad has become much more of a 'normal option' today than 30 years ago, thus losing its exceptionality.

It is also often pointed out that the influx of foreign (graduate) students will keep European 'knowledge industries' afloat in the face of soon worsening demographics. This is correct, but assumes that the foreign students stay on in the host country's academic or wider knowledge systems.

Some European countries are now openly advertising their mobility policies as a contribution to 'skilled migration'. A few years ago, this was still a political taboo in most of Europe. No doubt we all need 'brain gains'. But there cannot be gainers without losers.

The politically motivated renaming of 'brain drain' as 'brain circulation' is nothing but a linguistic tranquiliser. But then, you cannot have your cake and eat it.

To repeat: I am a supporter of international student mobility. But mobility has become a mantra, and its supporters often argue like a religious group.

We are faced with a 'mobility imperative'. This is not without risks. In order not to wake up one day and find we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, we need a far more rational discourse - a discourse that is underpinned by evidence, in the guise of empirical facts and data and studies into the various effects of the different 'mobilities'.

I am not talking of 'policy-based evidence', but of impartial inquiries. As examples, and as a first reading, I am recommending the Academic Cooperation Association's recent studies Mapping Mobility in European Higher Education (2011), European and National Policies for Academic Mobility (2012) and Mobility Windows (2013).

But more is needed.

* Bernd Wachter is the director of the Academic Cooperation Association. ACA is a European association of national internationalisation agencies, as well as a think tank on all matters related to the international dimension of higher education. It conducts studies and evaluations and it organises various international seminars and conferences. Bernd Wachter has published widely on international higher education and is a frequent speaker at high-level international events.