Count virtual exchanges in EU mobility numbers, report urges

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A briefing from the European University Association urges ministers to reconsider how student mobility is counted in the European Higher Education Area, after the region has repeatedly failed to reach its target of 20% of students participating in study abroad opportunities.

“The higher education sector has reached a choice point”

“The reality is that the higher education sector has reached a choice point. Putting it bluntly: either it abandons the unattainable 20% benchmark or it radically expands its catchment,” the report notes.

EU nations agreed on the target in 2009, with a plan to achieve it by 2020. But, after years of struggling to collect accurate data, the total mobility rate stands at around 10% for bachelor’s degree graduates.

It is higher for those with master’s and doctoral degrees, meaning those who don’t go on to postgraduate education may be ‘missing out’ on international experiences, according to Michael Gaebel, director of higher education policy at the European University Association.

“The benchmark was agreed more than a decade ago, and one of its benefits is that it started systematic efforts to collect data,” Gaebel told The PIE News. “We know now that the benchmark – which was set relatively blindly at the time – has not been achieved.

“The results also suggest that it would make sense to replace the present 20% benchmark with a more differentiated approach, by distinguishing degree cycles, but also credit and degree mobility.”

Obstacles to reaching the target included the portability of grants and loans, immigration requirements and qualification recognition. In recent years, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and Brexit have further disrupted study abroad opportunities.

The EUA briefing calls for a “radical redefinition” of student mobility, including considering branch campuses and foreign franchise programs.

Although this might provoke “skepticism”, Howard Davies, author of the report and senior advisor at EUA, points out that “such students have either been denied access to, or have voluntarily stepped outside, their nationally funded HE systems.

“While still studying in their home country, they are not intellectually immobile.”

The report also recommends recognising mobilities achieved in non-formal and informal prior learning as well as students engaged in cross-border virtual learning.

“Given the urgency of the digital and green transitions, physical mobility needs to be blended with virtual mobility in ways which assure high quality and amenability to measurement,” the briefing notes.

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