Mobility and Internationalisation


Student mobility has always been of great importance for the Bologna Process as a tool for fostering mutual understanding and knowledge sharing within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) on grassroot, institutional and national level. Mobility promotes diversity, tolerance and peace, the development of intercultural and language competences and spreading democratic values across and beyond Europe. Over the past years, internationalisation “has become a must in every higher education institution across the globe” (ESU 2014), and at last it was included in the Bucharest Communiqué clearly stating that mobility should be regarded as a part of it, either as a tool or a result of the internationalisation process (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2012).

With the EHEA Mobility Strategy adopted as an addendum to the 2012 Ministerial Communiqué in Bucharest, that quality assurance, wide access and financial support should be at the greater national focus (ibid.). There have been efforts taken by countries to meet the targets set in the document and many considerations on related topics have been made by the stakeholders in terms of portability of grants and loans, underrepresented groups and mobility flows (EHEA 2015).

Now, we are facing the evaluation of the commitments from the co-signing countries, among others, on mobility and internationalisation. The aim of this chapter is to analyse the current situation and progress that has been made since the previous Ministerial Conference of 2012 regarding social, economic, financial and cultural issues, each important for ensuring quality, accessible and balanced mobility, as well as internationalisation and internationalisation at home.

Main findings

Mobility and internationalisation serve multiple purposes. However, the methods of following these action lines has been interpreted differently by stakeholders and policy-makers. The analysis of existing documents and reports has shown that there is an agreement that mobility and internationalisation should pave the way to the creation of a society where everyone can live peacefully, and that mobility and internationalisation assist in promoting democratic values and meeting the challenges of the globalised labour market. However, what we still lack is a clear and feasible way to measure progress within those action lines. As a consequence, countries often strive for quantity at the expense of quality, which does not and will not pave the way for balanced and accessible mobility across and beyond Europe.

In 2012, Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to mobility and emphasised its multiple aspects in the adopted documents. The Bucharest Ministerial Communiqué states that, “Learning mobility is essential to ensure the quality of higher education, enhance students’ employability and expand cross-border collaboration within the EHEA and beyond. We adopt the strategy ‘Mobility for Better Learning’ as an addendum, including its mobility target, as an integral part of our efforts to promote an element of internationalisation in all of higher education” (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2012). The Mobility Strategy for EHEA 2020 reaffirms and elaborates the targets stated in Communiqué from Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve, 2009 also setting additional goals. Moreover, it defines the measures for the implementation of aims and targets for quality, data collection for the social dimension of mobility, information policies and strategies, dismantling obstacles and balancing mobility flows (The Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2012). Although mobility constitutes one of the key action lines of the Bologna Process, the progress made over the years appears to be slower than the development of the ministers’ commitments.

Increasing attention has been given to dismantling barriers to mobility on European level, which has encouraged countries to take efforts on national levels. Yet according to the BWSE survey nearly half of the countries have not put measures and programmes in place to tackle barriers. Almost none of the respondents view them as effective, and more importantly, there was a general lack of monitoring of the actions taken.

Among the most critical obstacles to student mobility are financial reasons (34 out of 38 unions), family background (26 out of 38) and recognition (22 out of 38). Other frequently mentioned barriers are a lack of transparency and access to necessary information (15 out of 38 unions), lack of interest (15 out of 38), followed by disabilities and chronic diseases (11 out of 38) and quality of studies (11 out of 38). BWSE respondents’ perceptions are mirrored in the EUROSTUDENT report, which surveyed students who did not enrolled in study programmes abroad (2015). Further barriers to mobility that hinder students from being mobile included visa issues (4 out of 38).

Other examples come from the countries’ representatives. The Finnish student unions commented that going abroad for a credit mobility programme may cause a prolongation of students’ study periods, which students would want to avoid, while Danish representatives stated that the Danish Study Progress Reform severely limits flexibility and opportunities for student mobility.

In comparison to 2012, little progress has been made, and the largest obstacles still remain the reality (ESU 2012). The past and current situation in the EHEA prove that there is still not a sufficient commitment from countries in terms of actions taken to overcome barriers to mobility, and further programmes must be put in place on the national and institutional level. The obstacles students face vary depending on their individual situation and/or country of origin. Therefore, it is important that national and institutional strategies include measures targeted at specific student groups (EUROSTUDENT 2015).

Access and support
In the Bologna Declaration of 2001, member states emphasised the importance of social dimension of mobility reaffirming that “the objective of improving the mobility of students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff as set out in the Bologna Declaration is of the utmost importance” . The need for data collection on mobility was addressed in Prague in 2009 (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2009) and repeated in the Mobility Strategy 2020 for the European Higher Education Area in 2012 (ibid. 2012), together with the importance of improving the participation of diverse student groups in mobility, making these two aspects goals to be reached by 2020.

The key issue for accessibility is support, which means the availability of the student services for the international students should be on the same level as for domestic students. However, this is far from the reality in many countries where international students are often treated as cash cows, and they pay more for the housing (Poland) or have no access to free language courses (Czech Republic), for instance. The figure below presents the answers of 37 respondents from 33 countries about the availability of various student services for international students on the same level as for domestic students.


Category “other” included: language courses and student representation. Additionally, two national unions of students from Austria and Malta stated that the availability of certain services, e.g. access to grants and loans, depends on the student’s country of origin.


Underrepresented groups
The Mobility and Internationalisation Working Group of the Bologna Follow-Up Group has concluded in its final report that mobility of the underrepresented groups is an added value. The report also included a clear recommendation that each country should define underrepresented groups taking after in-depth analysis of the national context (EHEA 2015). Additionally, the report carried out by the Institute for Advanced Studies state that the generally underrepresented groups do not necessarily match the underrepresented groups in the student mobility (Grabher et.al. 2014).

According to the Eurostat, in 2012 alone, there were 500 000 mobile students in Europe (European Commission 2012), and this number has been increasing ever since. It is crucial to ensure that this group of students reflects the diversity of student population. Yet, although the commitment to do so was made in the Mobility Strategy 2020 for the European Higher Education Area in 2012, it is yet to become a reality, according to ESU’s member unions. Fourteen out of thirty eight unions have responded that no progress has been made in widening access to mobility for underrepresented groups, and only one has admitted significant progress.


Some countries have taken initiatives to improve the situation to widen access to mobility and improve student support by creating new programmes aiming to increase the number of incoming students and offer language courses, such as in Serbia. Another positive example is the case of Austria where, “the further step towards enhancing the international experience was the inclusion of mobility strategy elements in the performance agreements (“Leistungsvereinbarungen”) with the public universities. They are asked to build mobility windows into curricula, to offer more degree programs in a foreign language (preferably in English), to improve recognition procedures, to develop more joint study programs and more ‘internationalization at home’ features for curricular and extra-curricular activities.”

However, countries continue to lack a holistic approach to widening the pariticipation of underrepresented groups by designing specific measures that are consistently implemented, monitored and revised.

Internationalisation has become a must in every higher education institution across the globe” (ESU 2014). Although internationalisation has been a priority for European universities since their early establishment, it has regained importance and become a key issue in policy-making in the early 21st century (Bergan 2010). International competitiveness lied at the foundation of the European Higher Education Area (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 1999), and it was further addressed in the “European Higher Education Area in Global Setting” adopted by the MInisters at the EHEA Conference in London 2007. However,the notion of internationalisation itself was introduced in the EHEA documents only in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communique in 2009, which stated that mobility “strengthens the academic and cultural internationalization of European higher education” (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2009).

Internationalisation strategies

The recommendation in these and further developed documents first and foremost included creating national and institutional internationalisation strategies that promote a holistic approach to the process and emphasise the values of internationalisation. It is of a great importance that these strategies, designed and implemented through a collaborative effort with students, academics and other stakeholders, set guidelines for the internationalisation of higher education systems, as this process involves all relevant stakeholders and may assist in avoiding inconsistencies among the actions and initiatives taken.

According to the Bologna With Student Eyes questionnaire, only six out of 38 unions from four countries, Belgium Flanders and the French Community of Belgium (VVS, FEF), Bulgaria (UBS), Finland (SAMOK, SYL) and Ireland (USI), admitted that their countries have implemented internationalisation strategies on the national level very well. More alarming is that 12 out of 38 ESU’s member unions admitted that despite having the strategies, they are poorly implemented. Although the minority of the countries (15 out of 34) have implemented internationalisation strategies, 16 unions admitted that the governments have either started developing (five unions) or debating them (11).

In terms of consultation and the student representation in the process of developing strategies, only three unions stated that they were very much involved. This answer was followed by five member unions responding that they were much involved, nine were somewhat involved and four were very little involved. Six unions stated that there were not involved whatsoever. This clearly shows that the level of involvement of student representatives was insufficient.

In order to ensure successful implementation, follow-up and the improvement of internationalisation strategies, a number of factors are important. Firstly, it is essential that sufficient funding is allocated in order to follow the targets and actions that strategies embrace. Only one out of thirty eight unions responded that there was a sufficient amount of financial resources allocated on the national and institutional level to fulfill the purposes of internationalisation strategies. Another crucial issue is the follow-up and monitoring the effect of implementation of the internationalisation strategies, and half of the national unions of students (12 out of 24) stated that the progress of reaching the targets has been monitored. WIth the recommendation from the previous Ministerial Conference of 2012 on setting up the measurable and realistic targets, improved monitoring tools, it is still far from the ideal situation (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2012).

The above proves that although the commitments have been made on the European level, it still yet to have its effect on national levels. The unions have been addressed with the question what are the main challenges in following the commitments.


The largest obstacle (11 out of the 22 answers) is the issue of a lack of sufficient financial resources allocated for implementing and evaluating internationalisation strategies. Ten out of twenty two unions stated that there is not enough guidance from the national level that the higher education institutions could follow, and eight respondents admitted that there is a lack of interest from the stakeholders.

Internationalisation at home

Internationalisation at home means internationalisation of the curriculum and the teaching and learning process (De Wit 2010). Internationalisation at home, like mobility, is only one aspect; a tool for internationalisation and not an aim itself. It is specific to each and every academic discipline and programme and, more importantly, not dependent only on incoming students. “Not everyone has the possibility to study abroad for a diverse number of reasons. In order to assure the international character of studies for everyone, as well as the general quality of teaching, learning and research, each university should pay careful attention to creating an international environment at their institution. Every student must have the chance to be part of internationalisation” (ESU 2014).

There is a wide range of subtools available to facilitate internationalisation at home, among others, using international course literature, conducting study visits, organising guest lectures, improving staff mobility, performing international research assignments or activities and integrating domestic students with local cultural groups. The figure below presents the answers of 38 of ESU’s member unions and maps the tools used by the institutions in different countries.

Among the category “other”, unions indicated courses, either separate or integrated in the programmes, taught in a foreign language or distance learning.

Student unions were also asked about the involvement of students returning from a period spent abroad in building up internationalisation at home, which is both beneficial and valuable for the process, but also essential for returning groups of students in order to reflect on their period abroad. Institutions must take measures to ensure the reintegration of students, including the provision of study guidance. The majority of responding unions (22 out of 34) stated that the most common way to involve returning students is by offering advice to students who would like to go abroad. This is a relatively simple way to engage both returning students and the students wishing to study abroad, as the process may be both formal and informal. However, more than half of the NUSes (16 out of 34) answered that returning students are involved in the process of giving feedback about the period spent abroad. Ideally, the approach that is applied should aim at using student feedback in order to improve the process of internationalisation at home.

Conclusions and considerations for the future

Mobility has grown over the past decades, attracting an increasing number of students, but at the same time, it remains a privilege for the few rather than a real opportunity for the entire academic community. Students continue to struggle with substantial barriers hindering their access to mobility. The vast majority of students still report that funding, followed by family situation and problems with recognition are the foremost obstacles to overcome in order to become mobile, which brings the authors to the conclusion that since 2009, we can hardly speak of any progress.

As an issue that has been at the very core since the establishment of the European Higher Education Area, mobility has been tackled from different perspectives over the years. Different angles of discussions have shown countries that mobility is not only about adding up numbers representing incoming and outgoing students, but that we must also speak of mobility in connection with the social dimension, public responsibility and, last but not least, quality of higher education. Accessibility to mobility is yet to become a main priority. First and foremost mobility must become an opportunity for all and not a privilege for the few. Students should have the opportunity to participate in mobility regardless of which degree cycle they are in, including the third cycle of studies, their socio-economic background, family background, visible and non-visible disabilities, chronic diseases or other.

It has been concluded that financing remains the largest obstacle preventing students from going abroad. Very few measures have been taken to improve the situation on national levels, despite the recommendations from the Mobility Strategy 2020 for the European Higher Education Area adopted in the Ministerial Conference in 2012. ESU has been advocating for full portability of grants and loans, ensuring that countries provide the same student financial support for both credit and degree mobility as provided for domestic students, which is also included in the Mobility and Internationalisation Working Group of the Bologna Follow-Up Group report and the guidelines put forward by the Group. However, the formulation states only that portability must ‘in principle’ be provided, despite previous commitments to unconditional, full portability (EHEA 2015). It must considered in the future that countries commit themselves to full portability of grants and loans, as the lack of full commitment severely hinders student mobility. Additionally, although there have been changes in funding, the Multiannual Financial Frameworks must be increased. Not enough financial support for specific target underrepresented groups hinders the realisation of the goals that mobility should serve.

Although the countries have committed to devote more attention and take measures to widen the participation of the underrepresented groups in mobility, a little progress has been made since 2012. The first step forward has been taken by defining the underrepresented groups in the Mobility and Internationalisation Working Group final report with a clear recommendation for countries to define specific underrepresented groups in their contexts (ibid.), but only very few countries have followed up on that in their national strategies on setting up clear targets or measures designed for specific groups.

Internationalisation strategies, for the few that have been developed, have been rather poorly implemented and monitored. A positive development is that even if the strategies have not yet been implemented, they have began to be debated and the governments’ are starting to work with stakeholders on the drafting process. The main obstacles to full implementation as well as monitoring and revision are a lack of sufficient budget allocation and guidance for institutions in terms of how the documents should be designed. Another problem that appears is the content of the strategies, often lacking clear targets and measures aiming to widen the access of mobility for underrepresented groups and balance mobility flows. For the upcoming period, it is essential to offer better assistance for the countries. The creation of tools should be considered, aiming at assisting in the process of design, implementation and improvement of internationalisation strategies for the countries on EHEA level within the BFUG structures.

Internationalisation at home is a topic that has been increasingly addressed, and despite the various tools that are used on institutional level, such as internationalising curricula, free language courses, study visits, guest lectures, international research cooperation, there is lack of a holistic approach to the topic. Internationalisation at home is one of the tools and means to internationalisation, not simply a goal in itself. Therefore internationalisation at home must be integrated in the internationalisation strategies on national levels that will serve as guidelines for the institutions on how to create an international environment. There should be more space for the countries to take part in peer-learning activities aiming at sharing experiences and practises to help them take necessary steps in their contexts.


Countries should follow the recommendation of the Mobility and Internationalisation Working Group of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, taking efforts to define underrepresented groups within mobility, while subsequently collecting data. In order to prove the commitment in mobility, not only should countries strive for the 20% target, but more importantly this should pave the way for balanced participation of all student groups in order to ensure that the mobile student population reflects the diversity of student population and avoid brain drain.

As the student population is growing and increasing in its diversity, countries must create and implement strategies that will ensure wide and equal access to mobility with measures targeting underrepresented groups, which should be defined on the basis of collected data. Countries must not focus solely on the quantitative target, but look closely at the structure of the mobile student group and use qualitative methods.There is a clear need to widen participation in order to make mobility an opportunity for all and not simply a privilege for the few. Therefore countries should focus their efforts on dismantling barriers to mobility for all of the students.

Funding continues to be the main obstacles for student mobility. Although the EHEA Ministers committed to full portability of grants and loans in 2005, very little progress has been made. Countries must show their true commitment to the implementation of full, unconditional portability of grants and loans in order to ensure wider participation of students in both credit- and degree mobility. Students must receive the same supporting grants as provided for domestic students, and the hosting institution should cover the costs of education without imposing tuition fees or any other additional fees for international students.

Countries must strive for creating equal opportunities and grant equal rights for international and domestic students. It is crucial that institutions ensure equal access to all student support services, including financial support. Measures that are included in mobility and internationalisation strategies, must also be taken on the national level to avoid inconsistencies in initiatives taken by institutions.

For internationalisation, ESU proposes the following recommendations:

Internationalisation strategies must be created on institutional and national level to ensure a holistic approach to mobility and that all efforts taken by higher education institutions and governments work together and are in line with each other. Every strategy must contain goals and measures to be taken to achieve them, and more importantly, the appropriate monitoring and evaluation methods must be included to ensure a proper follow-up with sufficient funding and resource allocation. Strategies should address, among others, the issues of the participation in mobility of underrepresented groups, imbalances in mobility flows, the internationalisation of curricula and obstacles to mobility.

Internationalisation at home should be subject to quality assurance reviews, as it must be assessed and followed up on with specific recommendations to guide the improvement process. This will help to shift from the common quantitative approach towards a qualitative approach, positively influencing the further development of an international environment within HEIs. The internationalisation of curricula should use various and diverse sub-tools that ensure social and cultural inclusion as well as quality and international teaching and learning activities.


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