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Publications:Focus on: What future for student mobility

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Publication date: 14 February 2017

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I look forward to a United States of Europe, in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible - Winston Churchill in 1942

Citizens of the EU have the right to live, work and study in other EU countries. With a huge number of study options available, many young Europeans are choosing to pursue their studies abroad. The option of studying abroad is famously supported by the Erasmus programme, which fosters student exchange between learning institutions for periods of up to a year, and which in 2017 is celebrating its 30th anniversary. While the popularity of the EU may fluctuate, the popularity of Erasmus is enduring, with close to 4.5 million students having now spent time studying or working abroad under the scheme. Indeed, to young Europeans, many of whom have never known a time before EU citizenship, the ability to study abroad feels like a right to which they feel entitled.

The experience of studying abroad goes a long way towards nurturing a young generation of Europeans who are international in their outlook, linguistically skilled, and culturally aware of the histories and societies of their neighbouring European countries. This is of obvious benefit to Europe. Erasmus students who return home after studying abroad will inevitably maintain and nurture ties to the countries in which they have lived.

And yet Erasmus is by no means the only way to study abroad within the EU. Rather than spending a term or semester abroad, students may opt to complete the entirety of their studies in another European country, taking advantage of their right to enrol for a Bachelor's, Master's or Doctoral degree at an institution abroad.

There are many reasons for doing so. In some cases, students may be attracted to a certain university on the basis of its academic reputation. Others may choose to study abroad out of a sense of adventure, or a wish to acquire new language skills and experiences. Others see it as a chance to strengthen their CV and enhance their employment prospects.

Degree mobility is undoubtedly of as much value to European society as the Erasmus scheme, and the two are often linked. Many students who have had their first taste of studying abroad under the Erasmus scheme during their Bachelor's degree may then go on to pursue a Master's degree in another country. While the freedom to do so is provided for by the inherent rights of EU citizenship, this form of degree mobility has only recently been actively promoted by the European Commission. Indeed one of the innovations of the Erasmus+ programme is the establishment of a master degree loans scheme to support students wishing to study in another country.

The Commission scheme responds to the reality that for some students cost is a factor – especially for young people in countries or regions which generally charge high tuition fees. Many students from England, for example, where tuition fees are currently around £9 000 per year, have opted for more affordable degrees in other EU countries, where courses are comparably inexpensive, or even free.

While student mobility in Europe brings benefits to individuals, to countries and to Europe itself, barriers still exist, and indeed in the current political climate these may also be created inadvertently. For example, while student mobility was not a high profile issue in last year's UK referendum on EU membership, Brexit negotiations will certainly need to deal with the topic. Indeed, removing the right to equal treatment in access to European higher education is one of the main concerns expressed by young British and other EU nationals alike.

The European Commission has recently been increasing its efforts to identify barriers to learning mobility. It recently published a Mobility Scoreboard, assessing country performance in a number of key areas that support mobility. These include information and guidance, the portability of grants and loans, linguistic preparation for mobility, and recognition of learning outcomes and qualifications – all matters which can stand in the way of a student's ambitions to study abroad.

It is to be hoped that an increased focus on these issues will help to ensure wider access to learning mobility, as the experiences and outlook of younger generations will shape the future of Europe. Whichever direction the European Union takes in the coming years, promoting learning mobility must remain one of its central priorities.

Authors: Ross McQueen and David Crosier