By Jan Petter Myklebust. At least one in five higher education students should spend three months studying or training abroad by 2020, European Union member governments have agreed. Education ministers from the 27 member states last month adopted conclusions on the modernisation of higher education with a special emphasis on mobility.
They set 2020 as the target date by which an EU average of at least 20% of higher education graduates should have had a "period of higher education-related study or training (including work placement) abroad", representing a minimum of 15 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits "or lasting a minimum of three months".
The EU has been wrestling with the issue of higher education modernisation for many years, linking it to employability and a strategy for growth and jobs. Study and training periods abroad, to encourage cross-border cooperation and improve the quality of education and training, are one of the priority areas on the agenda. The main message from the Brussels council of ministers is that further modernisation is urgently needed. Higher education in Europe has increased in volume but financing, curricula and governance structures have not followed suit. In the global economy, the EU can only compete by increased competence and capacity for innovation.
The key question is how Europe, with 4,000 universities and higher education institutions, 19 million students and 1.5 million members of staff, can contribute more to growth, employment, innovation and welfare. The Bologna process for creating a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has contributed to increased mobility, ministers said, but more has to be done. This is why they set concrete goals for increased mobility before 2020, to be backed up by special monitoring and a report-back before the end of 2015.
"Learning mobility can help improve the overall quality of education, especially through closer cooperation between educational institutions," the declaration stated. It can also "help to reinforce a sense of European identity and citizenship".
Ministers highlighted the following steps to strengthen mobility:
- More systematic inclusion of mobility in curricula, ensuring efficient recognition of credits gained through the ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, quality assurance and the European Qualifications Framework.
- Elimination of barriers to switching institutions between bachelor and masters degrees and to cross-border cooperation and exchanges.
- Better access and employment conditions for students and teachers from non-European countries, including reducing administrative difficulties in obtaining visas.
- Ensuring quality assurance systems cover franchise systems adequately.
- Promoting higher education institutional cooperation.
A specific measure, previously discussed by the European Commission, of an Erasmus masters degree mobility loan guarantee scheme is not explicitly mentioned in either the general conclusion or the specific conclusion on mobility.
The Bologna process priorities state that mobility is important for "personal development and employability, it fosters respect for diversity and a capacity to deal with other cultures".
They go on to say that mobility encourages linguistic pluralism, underpinning the multilingual tradition of the EHEA, and increases cooperation and competition between higher education institutions.
"Therefore, mobility shall be the hallmark of the EHEA. We call upon each country to increase mobility, to ensure its high quality and to diversify its types and scope."
The communiqué from the 2009 conference of the 46 education ministers from the EHEA called for the 20% target to be met by 2020. Professor Ziga Turk, of the faculty of civil engineering at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, who chaired the 2010 high-level group on future academic networking in Europe, welcomed the conclusions.
He told University World News: "The communication revolution, with much learning [resulting] from literature or from peers on the internet as well as globalisation in general, demands a modernisation of higher education in Europe and more mobility to build a truly common knowledge area."
But Professor Jo Ritzen, a former education minister in three Dutch governments and president of Maastricht University from 2003-11, said the proposals were "too little, too late".
"There is only the beginning of an EHEA in a European landscape which is dominated by national university systems that have reached their limits in terms of inter-country mobility and cross-fertilisation," he told University World News.
"The commission hopes that the small (highly needed) steps in terms of Europe-wide accreditation and quality control are going to come to the rescue and indeed produce a 20% student mobility. This is very unlikely, if it is not aligned with an EHEA in which there is true competition for students and where the competitors are rewarded when they succeed."
Ritzen, author of A Chance for European Universities, said that countries with substantial net immigration of students were increasingly pressing for money to follow students.
"Countries that use the cohesion and structural funds for everything but their human capital are rewarded by having their students paid for by other countries, even though in the long run they are the net losers because of the ensuing brain drain."
He said a new version of Erasmus was needed, in which European finance was piloted for European students who study abroad within Europe and where cohesion and structural funds were used to create centres of excellence in the countries that now see large numbers of students leave.