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Mobility in Europe and the Recent Developments

bridges vol. 20, December 2008 / Letter from Brussels

By Sabine Neyer

At the European level, every type of mobility up to the mobility of Higher Education Students falls under the category of "Lifelong Learning," a

Sabine Neyer

program consisting of several branches: Comenius for schoolchildren, Leonardo da Vinci for people in vocational education and training, Grundtvig for adults, and - the most prominent branch - Erasmus for university students. The main aim is to foster European Mobility within the EU Member States and other countries participating in this program (EFTA-countries, candidate countries, Western Balkan countries, and Switzerland) . The whole program is endowed with around €7 billion. Looking at the Erasmus program, one can see significant increases in the number of participants. Since 1992 more than 42,000 students have participated: From 4,100 students in 2007, numbers have increased to an estimated 4,573 participants in 2008. There is no doubt that this program in general, and the program branch Erasmus in particular, is one of the European success stories.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Positive effects of mobility

languages_small.jpgThere are many reasons why mobility should be fostered wherever possible. Mainly, the exposure to a new language is the most important advantage of a stay abroad or of a virtual contact. No other language training can motivate people as efficiently, and with such lasting results, as personal contact with people from other nationalities and other mother tongues. Successful jobholders need soft skills more than ever, and close contact with other nationalities can ease the acquisition of intercultural knowledge and establish the basis for an open and unstressed way of treating people with different cultural backgrounds, needs, and ways of living. As we move toward a more dynamic and mobile labor market, the readiness to move to another country is another positive result of mobility within the framework of education and training. People who have had previous experience with travel and mobility are much more willing to change their living and working place for a new job.

Definition of mobility

Before talking about whether and how to foster mobility, one should define precisely what is meant by “mobility.” Austrians, more than some other Europeans when dealing with Higher Education matters, are likely to stress that not every kind of mobility is positive. The most prominent example of negative and undesired mobility is the so-called “bypass-mobility” and the inter-connected access to higher education in Austria. To summarize briefly, we are talking mainly about entering medical students in Germany, who were not admitted to a German medical school because of the German “Numerus Clausus” system. Until 2006, there was no limitation on the number of places in Austria; but due to a ruling of the European Court of Justice in 2005, Austria had to change the national system in higher education. A quota system had to be established to guarantee that 75 percent of the student places in medicine and dental medicine would be reserved for students with Austrian school leaving diplomas. Studies have shown that, without this protective quota, German students would have overloaded the Austrian medical schools (“bypass-mobility”) and most of these students would than have left the country as young doctors to practice in Germany. In the long run, and without a quota, Austria would have a serious problem guaranteeing a good health care system in the own country while paying for the training of future German doctors.
When talking about mobility, the distinction between virtual and physical mobility must also be made. For the last Council Conclusions on Mobility, both types of mobility were considered by the decision makers. Virtual mobility refers to partnerships between schools (or other institutions) via Internet. One of the most prominent examples is the project “e-Twinning ” , in which school children from two schools in different countries get in touch with each other without traveling to the other country. Virtual mobility is a reasonable approximation, but not a replacement for physical mobility. Still, for handicapped pupils or for students with children, virtual mobility provides an interesting option. However, physical mobility, the personal experience of moving somewhere and meeting different people from another country, can not be replaced by the virtual experience.
Assuming that “physical mobility” would be a clear term is also a faulty conclusion. Questions about how long the mobility has to last and which form the mobility should take remain unresolved problems. In cases of doubt, any mobility should be taken into account to reach the ambitious goals of the Education and Higher Education Ministers. 

High Level Expert Forum on Mobility and new Benchmarks for Member States

Commissioner Jàn Figel´, responsible for education and vocational education and training, culture and youth, has set up a Higher Education Forum on Mobility with the aim to define new ways of fostering mobility in Europe. This group, founded in December 2007, is chaired by Maria João Rodrigues, former Portuguese Minister for Employment. This high level group recommended as a “long-term goal” that mobility in the field of education and training should no longer be the exception, but the rule. As a medium target, the group proposed that a proportion of 50 percent should experience cross-border mobility by 2020.
These targets have been considered by the French Presidency in the above-mentioned Council Conclusions on youth mobility. Member States agreed to reach the goal, based on the proceedings of the High Level Expert Forum after 2013, to provide every schoolchild with the opportunity to take part in some form of mobility in the course of their school studies. Furthermore, Member States agreed that every student in higher education should have the opportunity to pursue a period of study, or training, or a work placement abroad, and that Higher Education Institutions should be encouraged to make such periods of mobility a part of their degree programs in either the first or second cycle. The promotion of mobility in the context of vocational education and training should also be significantly increased. The agreements on these conclusions have been the basis for the communication on “An updated strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training” by the European Commission. In this communication , new benchmarks for the field of Higher Education were expected.  No detailed targets for higher education mobility have yet been announced, but it is very likely that the target of the Council conclusions will be taken up at a later stage by the Czech (1st half of 2009) or Swedish (2nd half of 2009) presidency.

ERASMUS students in the Netherlands.

Still, some criticism should be voiced, because mobility has to be removed from the status of dogma. Apart from the fact that increasing the mobility of students in vocational education and training from the current 2 or 3 percent to 100 percent is barely realistic – even by including virtual mobility – serious doubts about the value of compulsory mobility must be stated. For students with children, who have to draw on all their energy to combine the life of a student with the life of a mother/father, compulsory mobility is more an obstacle than an advantage. Although handicapped students have the same rights, it is a simple fact that compulsory mobility would create an obstacle for these students, too. A brief glimpse at the data proves this point: Among the 4,100 Austrian Erasmus students in 2007, only 6 students with handicaps have participated. Even if decision makers allocate special funding for these groups, expectations still must remain grounded in the framework of reality.
Fostering mobility from early school age to university students, and further on to researchers, has to be a priority. But the measures taken to reach this goal should be carefully considered: Obligation is rarely an approach that leads to continued success.



The author, Sabine Neyer, has been working as attachée for science and research at the Austrian Permanent Representation to the EU since January 2007.


Conclusions of the Council and of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, meeting within the Council on 20 and 21 November 2008, on Youth Mobility (Doc. 16206/08)


Communication of the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on "An updated strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training" (COMM(2008)865) {/access}

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