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Publications:Focus on: The new Erasmus+ programme will boost higher education staff mobility from 2014. But what is staff mobility?

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Focus on: The new Erasmus+ programme will boost higher education staff mobility from 2014. But what is staff mobility?

Date of publication: 4 October 2013

Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations – Senator William Fulbright

As the debate on internationalisation of higher education grows stronger, so does the interest in mobility not only of students, but also of staff. This is likely to intensify in the coming months, as the European Commission's new Erasmus+ programme, starting in 2014, promises more opportunities and funding for higher education and teaching staff to study, train and work in another country. Indeed, higher education staff will account for a significant percentage of the 1 million beneficiaries of a mobility period funded by the programme between 2014 and 2020.

Staff mobility is seen as a vital and often cost-effective means of creating 'internationalisation at home' – enabling students to (in)directly experience another higher education culture on site. It is also widely believed that staff mobility has an additional value in acting as a catalyst for student mobility.

However, although higher education policy papers often contain positive statements on staff mobility, reality is complex. Information on what is already done in the field is difficult to find. The 2012 Bologna Process Implementation Report, for example, attempted to identify comparable European statistical data, but was only able to use information provided by the Erasmus staff exchange programme – an important support programme, but one that is able to provide only part of the picture of European staff mobility.

But why is it so difficult to find out the details? As a new Eurydice report on staff mobility points out, there is still a great deal to be done to capture reality better. For example, before developing data sets on staff mobility, basic questions needs to be answered: What is actually meant by staff mobility? Does it include virtual mobility, for example? Some think yes, others argue that virtual mobility is a different phenomenon to physical mobility. However, physical mobility may also embrace quite different realities. For example, does it make sense for a category of 'mobile staff' to include education staff attending an international conference alongside those emigrating to another country? If not, where should the boundaries be drawn? For now, there is no agreed definition of staff mobility, and hence no agreement on what forms of mobility data should be collected.

The Eurydice report sets out to fill at least part of the knowledge gap. Its purpose is to provide information on specific country actions that support staff mobility. It is clear that these actions vary greatly from country to country – from very developed programmes (such as those in Germany and the Nordic countries) to much more limited and targeted actions.

So while higher education policy-makers are eager to support staff mobility to further the internationalisation of higher education, no clear definition exists and no quantitative measurement is possible. Work is therefore needed rather urgently to classify and record different forms of mobility, and thus to enable all of us to understand better how higher education is changing. The Bologna Process provides an ideal framework for this work to be defined and carried out, while the European Commission – a key player in the Bologna Process – clearly also has a major interest in the topic. Supporting 1 million staff to be mobile in the next 6 years will require a considerable financial investment – but it is an investment that can potentially bring about significant change.

Authors: David Crosier and Andrea Puhl