More focus needed on higher education staff mobility

Staff mobility needs to be given the same kind of attention as is paid to student mobility if universities’ internationalisation strategies are to succeed, says a new report from the European University Association and the Academic Cooperation Association.

The report, Connecting Mobility Policies and Practice: Observations and recommendations on national and institutional developments in Europe, is largely based on the results of the Mobility Policy-Practice Connect, or MPPC, project supported by the European Commission’s lifelong learning programme.

This saw workshops, focus groups and university visits take place in three European countries in cooperation with the Lithuanian University Rectors’ Conference, or LURK, the Conference of French University Presidents, or CPU, and the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference, or MRK.

‘Cross-institutional buy-in’

Among the many conclusions is that while higher education mobility in Europe is a long-standing political priority – often expressed through Erasmus, the European Credit Transfer System and the Bologna Process – more needs to be done to encourage “cross-institutional buy-in for mobility objectives beyond the international office”.

In particular, staff mobility needs to be given “a stronger focus within strategies, whether for internationalisation, research or teaching”.

“But this sentiment is not always shared across institutions,” says Michael Gaebel, director of the higher education policy unit of the European University Association, or EUA, and one of the authors of Connecting Mobility Policies and Practice.

“There can be assumption that everyone believes mobility is a good thing, but while some faculties support it, others don’t see the value,” he told University World News.

Lack of strategic direction

Citing earlier studies, such as the EUA’s Closing the Gap report of the Mapping University Mobility of Staff and Students, or MAUNIMO project (2010-12), Gaebel said mobility was often driven by the particular interests of faculties, departments, individual staff and students, or the latest funding opportunities which can suddenly change, and there can be a lack of strategic direction at the institutional and national levels.

The new paper, which Gaebel co-authored with Elizabeth Colucci, Irina Ferencz and Bernd Wächter, argues that while practically all universities in Europe have internationalisation strategies, these need to spell out the benefits of mobility more clearly.

Data collection must be improved and case studies shared, both within countries and between countries, for quality assurance and other strategic purposes.

“Effective institutional strategies for mobility and internationalisation require fit-for-purpose and well-articulated structures,” says the paper. This means looking beyond Erasmus credit mobility and fee-paying students and including joint degrees, exchanges through partnerships and staff mobility.

Different types of staff mobility

“Institutions are starting to pay more attention to different types of staff mobility, given the potential link to strategic internationalisation, enhancement of research and teaching and general professional development,” says the report.

But it recognises that academic staff is a very “heterogeneous category”, and that the situation and status of staff differs greatly between higher education systems in Europe.

“Project participants felt that institutions should better assess the potential of academic staff mobility for diverse purposes, such as research, teaching, preparing joint study programmes, language training and inter-university development cooperation projects.

“These different types of staff mobility would need to be considered in conjunction with strategic goals and further incentivised and supported.

“Staff should be encouraged to take a proactive role in mobility programmes and opportunities, both by taking advantage of existing partnerships and initiatives but also by pioneering new ones,” says the report.

“Institutions should also consider the duration of staff mobility, which can vary from a few days – conference attendance, for example – to shorter-term teaching assignments, to longer mobility periods, such as sabbaticals or mobility in the framework of joint projects.”

In both the French and Lithuanian workshops for the mobility project, it was felt that longer-term staff mobility – while clearly a challenge from the point of view of resources – could deepen the teaching and research experience abroad and yield a wider institutional impact, both for the host and the home institution.

Don’t forget administrative staff

Staff mobility should not be restricted to academics, according to the paper, which said: “So far, the personnel of international relations offices seem to be the only type of mobile administrative staff, and in very limited numbers, due mostly to a lack of demand from other administrative staff categories and linguistic limitations.”

But there are examples of institutions starting to provide professional development opportunities abroad for all kinds of staff, with examples in Lithuania, France and Spain of international staff training weeks – both sending staff abroad and receiving staff from partner universities.

Gaebel admitted it was often easier for academic staff to be mobile – it is part of the accepted culture. “Sometimes you have to overcome suspicion that going abroad for a conference or exchange is work, and not a holiday, especially if it involves administrative staff.”

The paper also noted that international staff are increasingly perceived as a key factor for internationalisation and quoted a recent EUA project on the internationalisation of doctoral education – ‘FRINDOC’ – which reaffirmed that the number of international staff is one indicator of how institutions perform internationality.

“However, in most European countries higher education institutions predominantly recruit domestic staff, due to financial and regulatory restrictions, as well as cultural and language issues. A forthcoming EUA study clearly indicates a widespread preference for hiring domestic academics with international experience.”

Next steps

As for the next steps, Gaebel hopes to see staff mobility given a much higher profile in the Bologna ministerial conference being held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in May 2015.

He also wants the European Commission to create a repository, or living archive, where reports such as the Connecting Mobility Policies and Practice paper can be stored in an accessible manner for future policy-makers and researchers.

“The European higher community has, over the past two decades, undertaken a vast amount of work through European Union projects, which could make for a rather rich resource for both reflecting on the past and developing ideas the future.

"It is pity that that the memory of this sits just with a few individuals,” he said.

* The new MPPC report builds on the earlier MAUNIMO report carried out by the EUA and four universities – Marburg, Oslo, Swansea and Trento – which looked at ways to map European student and staff mobility.

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.