Making the case for student mobility: A question of design

International student mobility (ISM) is a priority for higher education stakeholders worldwide. ISM is defined by UNESCO as “internationally mobile students are individuals who have physically crossed an international border between two countries with the objective to participate in educational activities in the country of destination, where the country of destination of a given student is different from their country of origin”. Stakeholders – including students, faculty, higher education institutions and governments – are invested in ISM for a myriad of reasons, such as providing students with opportunities to develop intercultural competence and critical skills, improving the quality of teaching and learning and remaining competitive in the global labour market.

To achieve their goals, ISM stakeholders must be diplomatic and well-informed. ISM is inextricably tied to geopolitics since students cross borders and institutions establish strategic partnerships with one another, among other activities.

Stakeholders, particularly policy-makers, must also be able to respond quickly, appropriately and strategically to a range of issues. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year severely disrupted education abroad programmes and students’ academic careers, and COVID-19 has potentially altered well-established global ISM flows.

ISM stakeholders require scientific knowledge to create effective policy, inform practice and, most importantly, improve student outcomes. A constant struggle among ISM researchers is ensuring their scientific findings reach policy-makers and practitioners.

Policy briefs are a powerful tool to communicate scientific findings concisely and accurately to practitioners and policy-makers: they present evidence-based findings and illustrative examples that can, with careful consideration of context, guide decision-making by proposing actionable recommendations.

Policy briefs are considered an effective mode for communicating findings, but it is not entirely clear how a policy brief should be designed.

To begin exploring what elements make a policy brief effective, a survey was administered between July and September 2022 to ISM experts who self-identified as scholars and practitioners taking part in the European Network on International Student Mobility: Connecting Research and Practice (ENIS)*, a network financed by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Survey items built by the volunteers in this European network covered elements related to formatting, such as what type of sections and information should be included in an ISM policy brief.

Important sections

Survey respondents were asked to select from a list those sections considered a key part of ISM policy briefs targeted at policy-makers and-or practitioners. The survey received 87 replies from 34 countries. Most participants had over 10 years’ professional experience related to ISM.

The exploratory data analysis shows the most important sections of a policy brief are, in order of appearance: the summary, findings, implications, recommendations, conclusions and case studies.

All these sections were chosen by a majority of respondents, though with varying degrees of importance. The sections considered most important by respondents were findings and recommendations, and the conclusion was considered the least important section.

These results might not be surprising, as findings are the core of the policy brief where research results are presented, while recommendations summarise the message that policy briefs seek to convey.

The importance of the summary underlines the need to quickly present a policy brief as practitioners and policy-makers, who frequently have limited time and are pressed to make decisions, may need to understand the message of a policy brief without spending considerable time reading through it.

The importance given to the implications section highlights the significance of clear explanations that translate research findings into recommendations. Similarly, case studies are a good way of illustrating the issue at hand and relating research findings to recommendations as well as reminding readers to consider context.

The relatively less importance attributed to the conclusions section might imply that the policy brief, intended to be succinct, should be written clearly enough so that a concluding section is unnecessary.

Different perspectives

Survey respondents were classified into three categories according to their primary professional role: scholars, practitioners and scholar-practitioners. Scholar-practitioners are generally ISM practitioners who engage in scholarly activities, like conducting research, to inform their work.

Survey results showed that practitioners considered each section more important than scholars by an average of 7%, suggesting practitioners preferred a greater number of sections and a wider range of information. The implications section was the exception, as this section was considered more important by scholars than by practitioners (73% of scholars vs 64% of practitioners).

Scholar-practitioners are important to ISM, and the survey sought to consider their unique perspectives. Survey responses from scholar-practitioners can offer insights into how policy briefs can be improved since they combine perspectives from both scholar and practitioner roles. Their responses enabled a refined understanding of how policy briefs might be designed and where priorities may be misaligned.

The survey results suggest scholar-practitioners deserve special consideration and should perhaps be included as a separate identity on future surveys since their responses were not, as might be expected, at the midpoint between those of scholars and practitioners.

For example, scholar-practitioner responses sometimes aligned with practitioner responses and at other times with scholar responses, or sometimes scholar-practitioners considered certain sections more or less important than both scholars and practitioners. For instance, scholar-practitioners considered findings and recommendations to be the most important sections (91% each), while conclusions (36%) and summary (55%) were the least important.

Connecting research and practice

The survey results shed some light on how to design an effective ISM policy brief, but they also raise several questions:

• Why do respondents who identify as practitioners tend to consider all sections of a policy brief important, while scholars do not? Are practitioners looking for a wider range of information to inform their work?

• What information within each section are respondents seeking or avoiding and why?

• How can researchers leverage the unique perspectives of scholar-practitioners to improve the design of policy briefs?

These are important questions when it comes to making the case for international student mobility and ensuring it is evidence-based.

Neslihan Onder-Ozdemir was an international postgraduate student at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and a postgraduate student representative of the University's alumni body. She is also on the academic staff at Bursa Uludag University, Türkiye, and is the coordinator of a mini-dictionary of terms related to international student mobility in COST Action CA20115 - the European Network on International Student Mobility: Connecting Research and Practice. Keanen McKinley is the assistant director for assessment and reporting, arts and sciences, in the Dean’s Office at William & Mary, USA.

*The data reported here are among the tasks performed in the European Network on International Student Mobility (ENIS) that has been built for the interdisciplinary and international exchange of knowledge and experience for ISM with the participation of around 304 members from 55 countries, including experienced researchers, early-career investigators and stakeholders. In this international network, five policy briefs have been prepared by the five ENIS working groups and are available on the ENIS website. Caution should be used when interpreting the results of the above data due to the sample size of the survey, particularly in relation to scholar practitioners.