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Making mobility more inclusive: towards more targeted support for disadvantaged students

Enhancing the social dimension of higher education has been a central pillar of the Bologna Process since its inception. The Rome Communiqué of 2020 and Erasmus+ 2021-2027 both place inclusion firmly at the centre of policy priorities for international mobility. Here, Valérie Van Hees presents the results of a recent study on “Making mobility programmes more inclusive” as well as related tools and strategies.

Why aim for inclusive mobility?

In Europe, a target of 20% of graduates experiencing a period of study abroad by 2030 has been set. However, while the overall number of young people and students on international exchanges rose rapidly pre Covid-19, the number of disadvantaged students taking part in mobility programmes has remained almost stagnant over the past decade. According to the 2019 Erasmus+ annual report, about 21,000 mobile students were considered to be ‘students with fewer opportunities’ – less than 7% of the total number of 312,347 participants. The proportion of the higher education student population receiving special needs financial support in the Erasmus+ programme between 2009 and 2019 oscillated between 0.11% and 0.15%, indicating that students with disabilities were further disadvantaged in relation to their peers.

Where do we stand with inclusive mobility strategies across Europe?

The study “Making mobility programmes more inclusive: from policy to inspiration”, recently conducted by the PLAR-4-SIMP project, shows that many countries and higher education institutions (HEI) have discovered that diversity breeds excellence and are embracing new ways to enable the participation of disadvantaged students in mobility programmes. However, equity, diversity and inclusion strategies differ widely across national and higher education systems in the EHEA. They vary according to the overall societal discourse, the country’s welfare system and its legislative framework, as well as institutional culture and governance structures. While some national and institutional strategies are very detailed in terms of the goals and the actions to be taken, most are more general.

Despite the broad political commitments at European and international levels to strengthen the social dimension, only a few countries have followed up with concrete measures to foster social inclusion in mobility programmes. So far, only four HE systems (Austria, Belgium-Flemish Community, France and Slovenia) have set targets. And only eight (Austria, Belgium - the French and Flemish Communities, France, Germany, Italy and those in the United Kingdom) monitor the participation of students from underrepresented groups in mobility programmes. Although data collection is crucial to better understand and improve the current situation, it is not common and often limited to collecting mobility data on outgoing mobility in Erasmus+. The impact of mobility abroad on disadvantaged students is rarely evaluated by national authorities, including Erasmus+ National Agencies and National Erasmus+ Offices.

What are the main issues?

In addition to gaps in inclusive mobility strategies, the study found numerous barriers in promotion, application processes and the portability of grants and services, acknowledgement and disclosure of disadvantaged status, access to practical information (i.e. travel, housing, healthcare) and collaboration between relevant stakeholders.

These findings clearly indicate that for disadvantaged students, undertaking an international mobility experience remains “a massive leap of faith,” and the reality for many is that without a comprehensive approach to targeted support, they might never consider the possibility of studying abroad.

However, our survey clearly shows that disadvantaged students are very keen to study, train or volunteer abroad. As for the general student population, the opportunity to live abroad, improving career prospects, expanding social networks, and learning different languages and teaching methods are the main motivators for disadvantaged students. The benefits are also consistent with those of their peers, in terms of higher academic and employment attainment, increased language skills, personal confidence and social skills development. In addition, the disadvantaged students who had been abroad testified to better adapted self-perception.

Institutional levels, objectives and actions

Such research data, as well as our specific experience in supporting HEIs, has allowed us to build an inclusive mobility platform and toolbox to support higher education authorities and institutions across the EHEA to make their policies and practices more inclusive in the short-term. All the tools are freely available on the inclusivemobility.eu platform and include:

  • Inclusive and versatile mobility frameworks that propose a comprehensive overview of objectives and action points which institutional stakeholders should consider – separately and in concert – in terms of mobility strategies, awareness and cooperation, information provision and communication, grants and application procedures, support services and target groups.
  • Inclusive mobility guidelines that offer practical tips and advice on how to implement the inclusive mobility framework and design inclusive mobilities.
  • Self-assessment tools that support each stakeholder to check their current practices against the inclusive mobility framework and advise on action points for improvement.
  • E-training packages that offer an alternative access route to the tips and advice mentioned above.
  • A communication package consisting of innovative video testimonials by disadvantaged/underrepresented mobile students and using the student ambassador approach, as well as content allowing HEIs to promote the benefits of outward mobilities in an inclusive and accessible way.
  • Country, national agency and institutional pages on the inclusivemobility.eu platform that allow stakeholders to post relevant information on national or institutional inclusion measures and support services.

What next?

As the Erasmus+ Programme 2021-2027 and the EHEA aim to achieve wider inclusion in mobility programmes, HE authorities and institutions should take bold action to implement inclusive measures and support services on behalf of disadvantaged students. The tools developed in the PLAR-4-SIMP project provide practical inspiration and effective means to tackle the barriers. These tools should generate a sustainable strategy at institutional level, for both incoming and outgoing mobility. All stakeholders across the EHEA should engage with these tools and post their information on inclusivemobilty.eu. In this way, the platform can stimulate a European cooperation network promoting transparent information sharing regarding the support of students from underrepresented groups in exchange programmes.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Valérie Van Hees

Valérie Van Hees is the coordinator of the Support Centre for Inclusive Higher Education (SIHO) in Belgium. With over 20 years of experience in the field of policy and inclusion in higher education, she is also the project manager for two European projects on inclusive mobility, EPFIME and PLAR-4-SIMP. She authored European reports on Inclusive Mobility, as well as a framework self-assessment tool and a training package to support higher education institutions, ministries of education, and national agencies in implementing a sustainable inclusive mobility strategy at institutional and national level.

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