Student mobility – How to bridge the research-practice gap

The creation of bridges among researchers and practitioners, and between research and practice, in the field of international student mobility (ISM) is as urgent as it is complex and necessitates targeted action. In fact, while knowledge is available, it often does not reach practitioners nor policymakers.

The first step to connect research and practice is to have a clear picture of who the stakeholders in ISM are. Mapping stakeholders in ISM was the purpose of a recent survey conducted among researchers and practitioners in ISM.

Definition of stakeholders

Before addressing the question of who the stakeholders in ISM are, it is important to make sure that there is a common understanding of what ‘stakeholders in ISM’ means. Therefore, the survey respondents were first asked to express their agreement (or disagreement) about the proposed definition of stakeholders in ISM: “Stakeholders in ISM are organisations and specific individuals/professionals that through their roles, at different levels, have an active function in student mobility policy/strategy/design, decision making, funding, facilitation, and/or support of ISM.”

The vast majority of respondents (87%) agreed on such a definition.

To identify the main ISM stakeholders, respondents had the opportunity to choose from a list of organisations and a list of functions of individuals; they also had the opportunity to suggest other stakeholders who might be missing from the lists.

Organisations involved in ISM

When it comes to organisations involved in ISM, the results show that ISM is a multilevel phenomenon, involving different spheres of society. Not surprisingly, higher education institutions (HEIs) come out as the main actors, selected by about 40% of the respondents.

After HEIs, about 20% of the respondents selected governmental (national and supra-national) organisations, mobility funding organisations and student organisations. Finally, a small percentage of respondents also named civil society organisations and business organisations.

The idea that HEIs are the main actors in ISM was expected, as it is at HEIs that student mobility happens and it is HEIs that actively recruit international degree-seeking students, that conclude agreements with each other to establish exchange programmes and that welcome and support international students during their periods of study abroad.

The importance of the role of governmental and mobility funding organisations is also easily understood, as governments create policies, laws and regulations that can facilitate or hinder ISM. Some countries even have dedicated internationalisation policies in which specific objectives for ISM are clearly expressed.

The importance given by respondents to the role of student organisations is interesting and points to an important role played by students which is often overlooked.

Student organisations are key in supporting international students before, during and after their period of study abroad. Not only do they welcome and support international students, but they also play an important role in fostering internationalisation at home, especially those student organisations that facilitate contact and exchange between local and international students.

The role of individuals in ISM

When it comes to the role of individuals as stakeholders in ISM, the survey results show a complex and populated landscape, similar to the one for organisations, but at the same time they provide some insights into the relative importance that each stakeholder plays in ISM.

Policymakers and decision makers and mobility officers are identified as the most important stakeholders. This is not surprising, as policymakers and decision makers are creating the rules and regulations in ISM and mobility officers are the practitioners in charge of the implementation of ISM.

The importance of career officers in ISM indicates how ISM is linked to students’ future career perspectives, which is a well-known and extensively studied phenomenon.

It is more interesting to discuss the role of the scholar-practitioner, as it is of key importance in linking research and practice. The scholar-practitioner is a practitioner (such as a mobility officer or a person working for an organisation active in ISM) who, besides his/her daily work in implementing ISM, also conducts some research; or an academic who, besides his/her teaching and research duties, is also active in the implementation of ISM (for example, a professor developing an international degree or a researcher directly involved in the implementation of mobility).

Scholar-practitioners have knowledge of both worlds (research and practice) and therefore can act as the bridge between them. Scholars-practitioners are able to ‘speak’ different ISM-related languages and they are able to translate core messages to different audiences, especially within and across academia.

Survey description and participants’ profiles

These results emerged from a survey promoted within the framework of the European Network on International Student Mobility (ENIS), a network created exactly to bridge the gap between research and practice in the realm of student mobility.

Other than the results presented in this article, about stakeholder mapping, the survey covered two additional topics:

• Understanding stakeholders’ needs;

• Identifying the best method for academic field research to translate the findings into useful information for ISM activities.

Survey participants comprised people who are heavily involved in ISM, holding various positions and having different responsibilities, characteristics and resources.

During the summer of 2022, an invitation was sent to approximately 290 people; the total number of responses received and considered for the analysis was 87, which amounts to a 30% response rate.

Being aware that the sample size is small and not representative of the overall community of researchers and practitioners in ISM, it nonetheless constitutes a group of highly qualified ISM experts who are currently working on ISM across Europe – in 34 different countries. Therefore, the results of the survey provide interesting qualitative data.

The work is part of ENIS, funded by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST). This brings together an international team of more than 180 experienced researchers, early-career investigators and stakeholders across Europe and wider.

It aims to respond to the need for systematic interdisciplinary and international exchange of knowledge related to ISM and brings together a whole variety of ways in which international student mobility is addressed. These include theoretical frameworks, research methodologies, findings and best practice examples, but also the quest for ways to translate scientific findings into recommendations for ISM practice.

ENIS is structured into five working groups focusing on:

• Thematic reviews of ISM;
• Researching the COVID-19 impact on ISM trends;
• Innovating in student mobility research;
• Translating research outputs into practical recommendations;
• Fostering the knowledge creation on ISM; and
• Event coordination to spread advances in student mobility.

The aim is to improve our understanding and knowledge about what works best in ISM. Having access to better data – with the survey adding to what we know – is a vital element of its work.

Alenka Flander is director of CMEPIUS, Slovene Erasmus+ and Internationalisation Agency for Higher Education. E-mail: Eleonora Erittu is a post-doctoral fellow at the department of political and social science of the University of Bologna, Italy. E-mail: Giorgio Marinoni is manager, higher education and internationalisation, at the International Association of Universities. E-mail: To find out about the ENIS action please visit the ENIS website. The project will end in autumn 2025.