Different ways of learning for students abroad

When the European Commission recently published the results of the Erasmus programme for 2012-13, it was proud to announce an overall increase in numbers of students by 6% to nearly 270,000.

The numbers and trends presented in the press release are indeed impressive: the overall numbers, the percentage of European Union students who are spending part of their study abroad with the support of Erasmus – 10%, still only half of the target of 20% set by the Bologna ministers of education, though – the top receiving and sending countries (Spain is number one for both), as well as increases in staff mobility (13%), in teaching assignments (8.5%), in university cooperation projects (25.4% success rate) and in intensive language courses (9%).

What was in my view the most revealing information, but which received little attention, was the increase in job placements: 16%, compared to 3.8% in study placements.

Job placements vs service learning

Since 2007, Erasmus has offered students the opportunity for European traineeships, also referred to as internships or job placements. Since then, the numbers have increased and currently one out of every five Erasmus students does work experience in another country.

According to the commission, the largest group of students on Erasmus placements has either a social sciences, business or law background (31%), while students in humanities and the arts, engineering, manufacturing and construction counted for 17% each. France, followed by Germany and Spain, was the greatest sender; the United Kingdom, followed by Spain and Germany, the biggest receiver.

The inclusion of job placements in the Erasmus programme reflects the increased focus on employability within internationalisation: how can we prepare graduates to become European and global professionals?

If we compare this to the United States, we see less attention being given to traineeships in companies there, but more attention to International Service Learning, or ISL, stimulating students to have an international community service experience.

ISL is seen in the United States as an important part of study abroad and internationalisation, although not much quantitative information on ISL can be found, partly because it is in many cases integrated into study abroad.

In general there seems to be little quantitative data about international job placements and service learning beyond the data for the Erasmus programmes, while it appears as if a lot of activity in this area is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.

Different rationales

The distinction between the increased emphasis on international job placements in Europe and on ISL in the United States reflects the different approaches to study abroad on the two continents.

While in the United States the main driver for study abroad at the undergraduate level is to make students less parochial and more interculturally and globally competent, in Europe academic rationales and – increasingly – the employability rationale are more dominant.

Global citizenship development versus global professional development, one could say.

At the same time, both in the United States and in Europe, the main focus is on study abroad and not on international job or community placements.

These two experiences might, though, have an even stronger impact on the development of intercultural and international competences than the study abroad experience because the student is confronted more intensively with society as a result and its population at large than within a purely academic environment.

Also little attention, certainly in Europe, is given to the opportunities that a combination of job placement and-or service learning with study abroad can provide.

Although the inclusion of job placements in the Erasmus programme has stimulated the interest of international officers for this aspect of mobility, in most cases international internships are dealt with either by units that manage local internships or by teaching staff and not by international offices.

This results in a situation in which international job placements are a marginal focus point for all three parties involved. This is also because international job placements are difficult to find, costly and time consuming to monitor.

In many cases, where the student manages to find a placement abroad, guidance and advice from the home institution is marginal.

To give only one small example: over the past month, after a desperate call from a student’s grandparents, my French wife helped a French student doing a two-month internship in a company in a small town in The Netherlands without any support from the home institution to solve the difficult communication problems she faced on her assignment and her living conditions.

This is, unfortunately, still more the rule than the exception in internships, certainly at the undergraduate level. Having a local supporting partner institution involved might make the experience more rewarding.

Need for a new approach

The current call for more employability, for more global citizenship development and for innovative ideas to enhance the internationalisation of higher education might make it a good idea to look for a new approach to old forms of work experience and community service and to integrate them into existing models of mobility and study abroad.

Over the years I have encountered very few examples in which universities include cooperation on job placement and community service learning in their agreements. Finding internships or community service opportunities abroad is left in most cases to the students themselves, teaching staff with personal contacts or commercial agencies.

Why not make use of the local network of partner institutions to find, monitor and evaluate internships and community service opportunities for students of the other university and vice versa?

Why not combine job placements and service learning with a summer course (for instance, in language and culture) and-or study at the partner institution, making the most out of this twofold experience?

A counter-argument might be that it is already difficult to find internships for local students – but more options could be opened up abroad for them via international partners to compensate for that. Also, internships could help to confront the frequent imbalance in student exchange-based study placements.

I cannot imagine that there are not already such forms of cooperation taking place and it would be interesting to receive some innovative examples in this area.

I have always found it surprising how little attention is given to service learning and in particular job placements as part of international learning experiences for students.

When we speak so frequently nowadays about global citizenship and global professional development, these two strategies are more important than ever.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, CHEI, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy; professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands; and research associate at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Email:


This would also make studying (working) abroad within Europe more appealing to non-European students. The only issue is finding international English-speaking work placements. There are only so many of those...unless everyone travels to English-speaking countries.

Simone Hackett on the University World News Facebook page