How high-mobility Erasmus Mundus adapted to COVID-19
Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees (EMJMD) are part of a particular initiative within the Erasmus programme. In EMJMD programmes, diverse student groups transit through multiple countries over a two-year time span to complete study periods at different universities and take part in practical training.
Mobility is thus foundational – not optional – to Erasmus Mundus programmes. The highly mobile nature of these programmes coupled with a distinctly diverse student body creates a complex situation for students and programme coordinators alike.
In the current situation, understanding Erasmus Mundus participants’ experiences and their views of the impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on their education is of immense importance for not only these programmes, but also for the wider international higher education community.
We surveyed more than 600 students and interviewed 10 programme managers in order to provide valuable insight into how these high-mobility programmes adapted to COVID-19 and in order to draw lessons from their experience for future emergency response planning.
As graduate students on the Erasmus Mundus programme ‘Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education’ (MARIHE), we occupy a unique position as participants in Erasmus Mundus programmes and as students of international higher education.
As we watched the pandemic unfold and the international higher education community break out in sheer panic about the consequences, we knew that, for our programme, the solution would not be simply postponing a semester abroad. For this reason, we dedicated a good portion of summer 2020 to researching the impact of COVID-19 on Erasmus Mundus programmes and will highlight a few key takeaways here.
A lack of emergency preparedness
Our research originally sought to explore the risk management approaches of Erasmus Mundus programmes pre-COVID-19, how programmes responded to the crisis and the current and projected effects on students’ degree completion and experience.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, mobility restrictions had been largely overlooked in risk management frameworks for higher education internationalisation projects in the EU. This was reflected in the interviews, where it quickly became clear that there were little to no health, safety or risk management protocols in place for these programmes.
Most respondents were extremely surprised at border closings within Europe and overwhelmed with managing an onslaught of administrative duties while having to cope with the complexity of working from home.
Addressing foundational challenges
Students already enrolled in the programme were notably less satisfied with the overall programme response to the COVID-19 outbreak than the incoming summer and autumn 2020 cohort.
Perhaps this is because, when the incoming students were admitted to the programme in spring 2020, the pandemic was already a reality.
This was not the case for current students, all of whom had either won a once in a lifetime full scholarship to attend the masters or were paying for the unique experience offered by Erasmus Mundus programmes.
The central obstacles students faced included infrequent and unclear communication from their programmes, opaque decision-making, travel and visa restrictions and mental health challenges.
Roughly half the students noted that these concerns were met with additional support measures from their programmes, with some initiatives for creating group chats and mental health support and more flexibility for tasks and assignments.
While both current and incoming students reported feeling anxious about the impact of COVID-19 on their programme, the majority were confident it would deal with the changes in the best way possible.
Moving mobility online
International experience and intercultural skills development play significant roles in Erasmus Mundus programmes through students living in several countries, taking part in practical experiences and engaging with classmates from around the world.
With entire Erasmus Mundus degree programmes moving online, to a certain extent the programmes lost both the ‘Erasmus’ and the ‘Mundus’ components.
When asked how programme managers were working to maintain the international and intercultural aspects of their programmes in the digital sphere, most respondents identified this as an area where they needed support and guidance. That intercultural competence building needs to be or can be actively facilitated was new to most.
Missing programme components
Over 100 students commented on how their degree components (mobility, internships, research practice, thesis work, etc) were impacted or changed entirely because of the situation and how this altered their programme experience in a fundamental manner.
Despite this discouraging situation and the increased demands that came with the online learning environment, 95% of students said they were still planning to complete their Erasmus Mundus programme during the pandemic.
Promoting inclusive practices
Despite concerns about adapting these highly mobile programmes to the realities of a pandemic-hit world, many programmes developed or adopted inclusive approaches to imitate the original programme components.
Some of these included developing individual solutions, providing flexibility with exams and courses, offering extra financial aid, inviting more guest speakers for virtual sessions, integrating alumni as mentors and connecting students directly to employers.
In certain programmes, if students could not enrol due to COVID-19-related reasons, they were invited to explain this in a future application, which the admissions committee would consider. Some programmes advocated strongly at the host institutions for priority with regard to in-person lectures.
One programme reached out to individual students to gauge the pandemic situation in the students’ home country, their ability to travel, their emotional readiness and experience with online learning.
They used this to construct an overall picture of the incoming cohort and adjusted curricular and extracurricular programming with an emphasis on including students who were stuck in their home countries, unable to travel to Europe.
For example, small groups were formed in some classes and the students who were still abroad were dispersed evenly among the groups. The ‘onsite’ students were then tasked with keeping their group’s ‘online’ student integrated in group work and class discussions. This measure signalled to the online students that their presence and input in the programme were highly valued and respected.
By focusing on Erasmus Mundus programmes, we are keen to inform the management of these programmes during the COVID-19 outbreak, but also to contribute to a larger conversation about education abroad and emergency preparedness in international higher education.
Our objective is to provide a valuable insight into how these high-mobility programmes adapted to COVID-19, draw lessons from their experience and shape recommendations for these and similar programmes.
Jessica D Schuller is a masters student in the Erasmus Mundus MARIHE programme in Austria and Finland, studying research and innovation in higher education and specialising in institutional research. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @JessSchueller. Flávia Soares De Oliveira Colus is a masters student in the Erasmus Mundus MARIHE programme in Austria and Finland, studying research and innovation in higher education and specialising in higher education policy. E-mail: email@example.com. The full research report can be requested from the authors.