Erasmus report fuels internationalisation debate

The Erasmus impact study Effects of Mobility on the Skills and Employability of Students and the Internationalisation of Higher Education Institutions is receiving wide attention in the media and the higher education community.

The study – which was commissioned by the European Commission and prepared by a consortium including CHE-Consult and CHE in Germany, Brussels Education Services, the Compostela Group of Universities and the Erasmus Student Network – provides very valuable information as well as a good basis for discussion and further study.

Some underexposed findings, issues that demand further study and potential misinterpretations of the findings need attention, however.

The Erasmus Impact Study is the last one in a series of studies over the past 25 years commissioned by the European Commission to assess the impact of its flagship programme, Erasmus.

The study focused on the impact of Erasmus student mobility on skills enhancement, employability and institutional development as well as on individual competences, personality traits and attitudes. It also looked at the programme’s impact on the internationalisation of higher education institutions.

Previous studies on Erasmus have looked at some of these aspects.

But the specific focus on skills, competences and employability, in combination with the large sample of students (56,733, including Erasmus and other types of mobile and non-mobile students), alumni (18,618), academic and non-academic staff (4,986, both mobile and non-mobile), 964 higher education institutions and 652 employers (of which 55% are small and medium enterprises) across 34 countries, make the findings of this study highly relevant and interesting.

Some results from the study have attracted more attention than others, in particular the fact that 32% of all mobile students and 33% of Erasmus students have a life partner of a different nationality and that 27% had met their current life partner during their stay abroad, hit the social media.

These percentages do not surprise me. My favourite and, as far as I know, not yet realised doctoral study project would be to analyse this data and see also if such partnerships are more or less sustainable than others in the long term.

But there are other findings that require more attention and further research.

For instance, the impact of a student’s personal background on internationalisation: are factors such as a more international family environment and primary and secondary school environment having a stronger impact than study abroad and do they also stimulate study abroad and development of soft skills?

The report does not provide much insight into these factors, which are something that could be looked into more.

Internationalisation for all

In the debate on internationalisation in higher education, the focus is still predominantly on quantitative results related to degree and-or credit mobility of students. But increasingly the question asked is what the impact of mobility is: is there an added value of mobility on personal and career development compared to non-mobile students?

In the 4th Global Survey on Internationalisation by the International Association of Universities, published this year, ‘students' increased international awareness and engagement with global issues’ was mentioned by 32% as the main benefit and 29% saw mobility as the best way to realise this benefit.

The Erasmus impact study confirms this strong focus on study abroad: 83% of the higher education institutions consider study mobility as the most important aspect of their internationalisation strategy and of their international profile.

This does not surprise me, but it does concern me greatly.

As I have stated on several occasions, there is no guarantee that study abroad has a positive impact, even though this study gives clear signals that in general it does. But more important is that we know – even when they are actively encouraged through programmes like Erasmus – that on average less than 20% of students study abroad.

As the Erasmus impact study notes, uncertainty about additional costs, personal relationships and lack of financial resources are mentioned by the non-mobile students as the main rationale for not going abroad.

One can argue over whether these are the real barriers and if it is not lack of real motivation that is the main factor, but in any case by far the majority of students will not go abroad.

The positive findings of this study should not be an argument in favour of focusing internationalisation efforts on study and placement abroad only. It should on the contrary result in a stronger effort to develop similar effects among non-mobile students: internationalisation for all!

Work placement mobility

The results of this study seem to confirm that mobility in general and in the framework of Erasmus in particular has indeed had a positive impact.

What is interesting and receiving insufficient attention is that work placements abroad have an even stronger impact than study abroad, something I already indicated in my last contribution to University World News.

One out of three students who did an Erasmus work placement was offered a job by their host company, and one out of 10 of them started their own company, with many others planning to do so. So work placements have not only a more positive impact on the development of soft skills, they also have better employment and career prospects.

While in the past personal development was the main driving force for study abroad programmes by American universities, for European higher education academic development, increasingly professional development, career prospects and employability dominate the discourse on the importance of study abroad.

Implicitly but increasingly also explicitly, employability is driving the agenda of policy-makers in Brussels, and also in the other capitals of Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The Erasmus impact study shows an increased interest in study abroad from employers. Compared to 37% in 2006, in 2013 64% of employers consider experience abroad important. And mobile students in general and in particular those in work placements confirm such findings.

For that reason, the results of the study are important factors in understanding the contribution of study abroad to enhancing the skills and competences as well as the employability and career prospects of graduates.

Clear benefits

Students clearly concluded that they have increased their soft skills: their knowledge of other countries, their ability to interact and work with individuals from other countries, their foreign language proficiency and their communication skills.

And the study finds similar positive findings in the comparison between mobile and non-mobile staff: increase in good practices and skills (70%), beneficial effects on the quality of teaching (81%), as well as on international cooperation (92%) and research (69%), although these are not the primary objective of Erasmus mobility.

These positive results are even more surprising given the general complaints by staff that staff exchanges lack sufficient academic, institutional and curricular recognition.

What we cannot conclude from this study, though, is whether these positive effects for students and staff are generic or if they are stronger when the study abroad experience is embedded in a more internationalised curriculum.

From studies in the United States about the impact of study abroad, we know that a study abroad experience which is embedded in the curriculum and where the student has an active pre-departure orientation experience, is actively receiving counselling during the period abroad and can use the experience gained on return, is more effective in developing intercultural competences.

It would be interesting to know if this applies to Erasmus study and work placement abroad as well. This would confirm the importance of more attention being paid to internationalisation of the curriculum and learning outcomes.

In summary, one can say that this study provides confirmation of some important factors: employability, career prospects and development of soft skills as a result of study and work placement abroad.

The study may also stimulate debate about the measurement of competences and skills and is food for further study of other factors such as how internationalised the curriculum and the teaching and learning environment are and how important personal circumstances before study abroad takes place are.

But also it is important to stress that the positive findings of this study should not distract us from the importance of internationalising the curriculum and learning outcomes of non-mobile students as well.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. He is also research associate at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He was a member of the advisory board of the Erasmus Impact Study. Email: