What is the True Impact of the Erasmus Program on Students?
In 1987, 3,200 students from different European countries began a pioneering program which, based on the idea of promoting mobility, intercultural competence, and the European dimension, is still considered today as the flagship of cooperation in education in the EU.
Three decades later, around 300,000 students benefited from the Erasmus Program in 2017. The program has had more than twelve million participants in its 36-year life.
The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which officially created the European Union, came to support the idea of free movement of students and scholars in the European sphere. Later, the EU's 2020 Development Strategy reaffirmed once again the importance of investing in human capital to promote economic development and internationalization. Mobility was one of the keys to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in 2025.
In 2017, the Erasmus Program (now Erasmus+) celebrated its 30th anniversary. This program is undoubtedly a well-known and successful EU initiative that has provided scholarships to encourage student and staff mobility, to develop intercultural competence, and to promote the European dimension.
The idea behind the Erasmus Program was visionary: "To promote joint study courses between universities and higher education institutions." There is no doubt that the Erasmus Program has encouraged students to travel throughout the continent and has contributed to the current international orientation of the EHEA.
Spain: Leader in the Erasmus+ Program
Over time, Spain has gained the role of the main country of origin and destination of the program in terms of the number of participants. The growth of international study mobility in Spain was particularly noticeable between 2001 and 2011, a period in which the number of outgoing and incoming students doubled, reaching a total of 36,842 students leaving and 42,537 entering in 2014-2015.
Only in the academic year 2013-2014, the Erasmus Program invested more than 580 million euros to enable 272,000 students to study abroad. That budget also includes salaries for 57,000 teachers and administrative staff members.
For the period 2014-2020, the European Commission increased the budget allocation for the Erasmus+ Program by 40%, reaching a total of 14.7 billion euros. Because of the included figures, the recognition of the program's real impact on the student body has become a topic of growing interest.
Types of mobility
Different types of student mobility have been defined in the literature. Vertical mobility is "internal mobility from other parts of the world, from a lower educational level to a higher educational level," and horizontal mobility is intra-European mobility between programs with equal educational value. In the EHEA, horizontal mobility has prevailed since the Bologna Process created uniform study programs in which students can learn under equal conditions. Depending on the duration of time spent abroad, there are two types of mobility: degree mobility and credit mobility. Degree mobility is a "long-term mobility of students with the purpose of completing a full course of study and obtaining a degree abroad", including participation in a joint degree program. Credit mobility is "temporary registration abroad for the purpose of continuing studies, but completing them in the country of origin". Another distinction is the direction of mobility: incoming mobility is "the place where the student is moving to" while outgoing mobility is "the place where the student is moving from". In the latest Erasmus+ Program Guide, the term "learning mobility" covers mobility for a range of actors (students, staff, associations, volunteers, youth workers, and young people) for the purpose of learning. The guide specifies that "while physical long-term mobility is strongly recommended", there should be more flexible time frames to ensure that the program is accessible to all students, regardless of their background, circumstances, and fields of study.
The Impact of International Mobility
Despite the widespread popularity of the Erasmus Program, there are few empirical studies on students' ability to identify and experience cultural differences. It would be particularly interesting to study individual variables, such as students' cultural background and their different contexts, as well as the various characteristics of studying abroad programs. Furthermore, there are few studies that address students' abilities to learn, acquire, and seek intercultural competencies in their lives. Most study abroad programs aim to achieve multiple goals, including academic skills (such as language skills), professional development (such as a sense of responsibility), personal development (such as flexibility), and intercultural competence (such as reducing ethnocentrism).
Is international mobility always positive? Universities, governments, employers, and students themselves tend to automatically assume that international mobility has a positive impact. However, exposure to cultural differences during study abroad experiences does not automatically increase intercultural understanding unless students' reflective processes are explicitly encouraged by institutions before and after the mobility experience. The development of students' intercultural competence may depend, in particular, on their initial levels, gender (women benefit more), integration into international mobility programs, and opportunities to maintain intercultural relationships.
The realities of today's world require universities to focus their efforts on future citizens. They must have the skills to deal with new challenges: people moving between countries, political restructuring and socio-economic order, all of which require transformations that will require the participation of responsible citizens who are sensitive to cultural differences and knowledgeable about the international sphere. Given that participants in mobility programs present characteristics that differ from their peers in terms of ability, field of study, and socio-economic background, and since we cannot confidently say whether the observed correlations are in fact causative, it is necessary to continue promoting research related to international mobility in order to fill existing knowledge gaps. / Source: The Conversation.