What is the real impact of the Erasmus programme on university students?

In 1987, 3,200 students from different European countries embarked upon a pioneering programme which, based on the idea of promoting mobility, intercultural competence, and the European dimension, is still considered the flagship of cooperation in education in the EU even to this day.

Three decades later, approximately 300,000 students benefited from the 2017 Erasmus Programme. The overall programme has enjoyed more than twelve million participants in 36 years of life.

The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, with which the European Union was officially created, came to support the idea of the free movement of students and researchers in the European sphere. Later, the EU’s 2020 Development Strategy once again gave a nod to the importance of investing in human capital to boost economic development and internationalisation. Mobility was one of the keys for the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in 2025.

In 2017, the Erasmus Programme (currently Erasmus+) celebrated its 30th anniversary. This programme is, without a doubt, a renowned and successful EU initiative which has granted scholarships to foster the mobility of students and staff, to develop intercultural competence, and to promote the European dimension.

The idea behind the Erasmus Programme was visionary: “to promote joint study courses between universities and higher education institutions”. There is no doubt that the Erasmus Programme has incentivised university students to travel far and wide across the continent and contributed to the EHEA’s current international orientation.

Spain: a leader in the Erasmus+ Programme

Over time, Spain has established itself as the programme’s main country of origin and destination in terms of number of participants. The growth of international study mobility in Spain was especially evident between 2001 and 2011, a period in which the number of students coming and going doubled, reaching a total of 36,842 outgoing students and 42,537 incoming students in 2014–2015.

In the 2013–2014 academic year alone, the Erasmus program invested more than €580 million to enable 272,000 students to study abroad. Also included in that budget are the wages of 57,000 teachers and administrative staff members.

For the 2014–2020 period, the European Commission increased its budget allocation for the Erasmus+ Programme by 40%, reaching a total of €14.7 billion. Because of the figures involved, knowing the programme’s real impact on the student body has become a topic of growing interest.

Types of mobility

Various types of student mobility are defined in the literature. Vertical mobility is “inward mobility from other parts of the world, from a lower educational level to a more advanced educational level” and horizontal mobility would be intra-European mobility between programmes of equal educational value. In the EHEA, horizontal mobility has prevailed since the Bologna Process established uniform study programmes in which students can learn on equal terms.

Depending on the length of time spent abroad, there are two types of mobility: degree mobility and credit mobility. Degree mobility is a “long-term mobility of students for the purpose of completing a full course of study and acquiring a degree abroad”, including participation in a joint degree programme.

Credit mobility is “temporary enrolment abroad with the aim of continuing studies, but finishing them in the country of origin”.

Another distinction is the direction of mobility: incoming mobility is “the country to which the student is moving” while outgoing mobility is “the country from which the student moves”.

In the most recent Erasmus+ Programme Guide, the term “learning mobility” covers mobility for a variety of players (students, staff, associations, volunteers, young workers, and young people) for the purpose of learning.

The guide specifies that “while long-term physical mobility is strongly recommended”, there should be more flexible durations to ensure that the program is accessible to all students, regardless of their backgrounds, circumstances, and fields of study.

Impact of international mobility

Despite the enormous spread of the Erasmus Programme, there are few empirical studies on students’ ability to identify and experience cultural differences. It would be especially interesting to research individual variables, such as the cultural background of students and their different contexts, as well as the different characteristics of the study program abroad.

Furthermore, few if any studies address students’ abilities to learn, internalise, and call upon intercultural competencies in their lives.

Most study abroad programmes seek to achieve multiple goals, including academic skills (for example, language skills), professional development (for example, a sense of responsibility), personal development (for example, flexibility), and intercultural competence (for example, decreased 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 does not automatically increase intercultural understanding, unless students’ reflective processes are explicitly encouraged by institutions before departure and prior to return from the mobility experience.

Development of students’ intercultural competence may depend, in particular, on their initial levels, on gender (women benefit more), on their integration in international mobility programmes, and on the opportunities they have to maintain intercultural relations.

Intercultural competence

The realities of today’s world require universities to focus their efforts on the citizens of the coming decades. They must have the skills to face new challenges: the movement of people between countries, political restructuring, and the socioeconomic order all call for transformations that will require the participation of responsible citizens who are sensitive to cultural differences and knowledgeable about the international sphere.

Considering that participants in mobility programmes present characteristics that are different from their peers in terms of ability, field of study, and socioeconomic background and given that we cannot say with certainty whether the correlations observed to date are in fact causality, it is necessary to continue promoting research linked to international mobility in order to close existing gaps in knowledge.

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