Quo Vadis Student Mobility?

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / OpEds & Commentaries

by Florian Pecenka

Florian Pecenka

When we talk about student mobility in Europe, the first thought that often comes to mind is the EU's well-known student mobility program, Erasmus. This successful program supports students studying abroad - with a total of 31 European countries participating in it. The so-called Bologna process, an important facilitator of European student mobility, complements Erasmus by creating the European higher education area (EHEA) and making academic degree and quality assurance standards more comparable and compatible throughout Europe.

This large-scale academic mobility of students and scholars raises issues such as the portability of grants and loans, and questions of how to deal with national social security and pension plans. These questions concern not only European policy makers but also researchers, mainly social scientists, who try to understand and  explain the patterns that underlie various forms of mobility.

A conference was organized by the French Community in Belgium this May to bring together lawmakers and researchers dealing with mobility questions. The conference - Fostering student mobility: Next Steps? - was attended by about 150 delegates from government departments and higher education institutions, as well as from European and international inter- and non-governmental organizations. Together with the two key speakers, Ulrich Teichler from the International Center of Higher Education Research (INCHER) and Bernd Wächter from Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), the conference participants discussed different types of mobility to better understand their causes and consequences, especially the newest kid on the mobility block:  asymmetric mobility.

{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} The following provides a brief introduction to three different forms of mobility:

1.    Vertical mobility
Vertical mobility or social mobility is the change from one social status to another. Teichler in "International mobility of graduates of European Universities" (2003) defines vertical mobility as "a change between positions which are interconnected with a different appreciation." Vertical mobility involves either "upward mobility" or "downward mobility." For example, many American students practice vertical mobility as they pursue a graduate degree at a different institution from the one where they received their undergraduate degree.

2.    Horizontal mobility
Social scientists define horizontal mobility as "a change in position without a change in status." The Erasmus program supports horizontal mobility as students move for a determined period to another European country to pursue their credit studies at a partner university and then return to their home university. The EU is currently developing a new program called Erasmus Mundus, which aims to provide scholarships for European students to study in countries outside of the European continent and vice versa. A program similar to the European Erasmus Mundus program is planned in the US with the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act, which plans to award grants for American students who are going to study overseas.

3.    Asymmetric mobility
For the rather new concept of asymmetric mobility, a common definition has yet to be found. Asymmetric mobility basically refers to foreign students who plan to study in another country in which the same native tongue is spoken as in their home country. Students usually return to their home country immediately upon completion of their studies. Reasons for asymmetric mobility lie in the different national access systems to higher education in the European Union. Significant differences in study fees and tuition, as exist between Germany and Austria , are also considered as contributing factors to asymmetric mobility.

A case study: the appearance of asymmetric mobility patterns at Austria's medical universities
Until 2005, access to Austrian medical schools was open to every Austrian interested in studying medicine upon their fulfillment of general admission requirements, such as presenting a secondary education diploma. For foreign students interested in studying at an Austrian medical school, special admission rules were requested. For example, German students interested in studying medicine at an Austrian university had to prove that they were admitted to medical studies in Germany.

In 2005, the European Court ruled against Austria, overriding its national access rules to universities. The Court ruled that Austria had failed to take the necessary measures to ensure that holders of secondary education diplomas awarded in other Member States (like Germany) could gain access to higher education under the same conditions as holders of secondary education diplomas awarded in Austria. Therefore, Austria failed to fulfill its obligations under Articles 12 EC (no discrimination on grounds of nationality), 149 EC (development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States), and 150 EC (facilitating access to vocational training and encouraging mobility).

After the ruling, Austria noticed a significant increase in foreign students in the medical field, mainly students from Germany. Eventually, in 2006, the medical universities of Vienna and Innsbruck introduced an admissions test (EMS-test) in reaction to the EU court decision. The universities' approach was simple: The 740 students performing best on the test would be offered a spot at a medical university - with no consideration of the nationality of the participants. In the first year of EMS testing, only 46 percent of the total places available would have been assigned to Austrian students. What this number implies about the Austrian educational system in terms of effective preparation for medical studies, or the EMS test, would go beyond the scope of this article.

It didn't take long for Austrian legislators to react to this. They consequently introduced a quota system in 2006 for medical and medical-related studies to avoid the negative effects of asymmetric mobility - namely a squeezing out of national students that would eventually pose a serious threat to the national health care system (click here for a forecast of the need of future doctors by the Austrian Ministry of Science and Research). Among all candidates who pass the EMS successfully, the quota system accords 75 percent of the available study places to students of Austrian nationality, 20 percent to EU-countries, and 5 percent to third country nationals as defined by EU. With this, Austria hoped to ensure that enough national students enter the medical profession who will also practice their profession in Austria upon completion of their studies.

The European Commission, however, saw this measure from a slightly different perspective: It said that this led to "indirect discrimination on grounds of nationality" which was prohibited by Article 12 of the EC Treaty. In December 2007, a five-year moratorium was negotiated, with the goal of having more data by 2012 on which to base further decisions.

In Brussels, after discussing the Austrian case, all conference participants agreed that such asymmetric mobility is actually more common within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) than was generally anticipated. Several delegates reported similar situations in their own countries. However, most countries are still quite reluctant to decide how - and sometimes even whether - asymmetric mobility should be approached.

One conclusion that can be reached is that asymmetric mobility can be divided into a two-part problem:

1)    One-way education tourism: Foreign students come to a country to benefit from its higher education system but do not plan to "give back" to the respective country and its society as professionals, since they return home with the acquired knowledge and degree after completing their studies.

2)    Displacement of national students: Through the high influx of foreign students, the competition for the limited number of available study places gets fiercer. In the ultimate worst-case scenario (with no quota system in place), a country's higher education institutions would only educate foreigners who leave the country after completion of their studies, while the country's own students cannot attend its universities.

With asymmetric mobility being a fairly new form of mobility, our knowledge about it and its consequences is still limited. However, this makes it even more important to closely watch its development in different countries, and to continue to exchange experience and ideas - on both a national and an EU level.

The conference in Belgium was a good first step, but only one of the many that must follow. Much more work remains to be done before the EU moratorium expires.

For further information on the conference, please click here.


The author, Florian Pecenka, was a visiting expert at the OST from January to June 2008. {/access}