The mobility of students across Europe – evidence of policy convergence?

By Rachel Brooks

Europe represents an important – and yet often overlooked – space for scholars interested in international student mobility. Through efforts to develop a European Higher Education Area, the European Union has pursued a highly managed, top-down strategy of convergence, with the aim of creating a strong higher education region that can compete with other parts of the world, and notably the US. Student mobility has often been viewed as an important part of this project – particularly the Erasmus scheme, established in 1987, which encourages movement between member states of the EU, with the aim of facilitating economic integration (by normalising cross-border movement) and helping to foster a European political identity. As part of our research for the Eurostudents project, we have explored how student mobility is currently understood by policymakers across the continent, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, and other European nations are reassessing their own relationship to their neighbours. We were particularly interested in the extent to which there was evidence of convergence in understandings of student mobility, as various scholars have argued that we are now witnessing a high degree of homogenisation with respect to education policy within Europe.

Over the last eighteen months, we have analysed 92 policy texts from six different European countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain). The countries were chosen to provide diversity with respect to their: ‘welfare regime’; relationship to the EU; and means of funding higher education. The sample comprised speeches given by government ministers for higher education, and key strategy documents, relating to higher education, produced by (i) government, (ii) staff and student unions, and (iii) graduate employer organisations.


Evidence of policy divergence

Across all six countries there are some important similarities with respect to international student mobility. All of the nations either have their own internationalisation strategy or strategic plans in this area are written into other key documents, and international mobility is identified as a strategic priority. Nevertheless, a more fine-grained analysis of the policy texts reveals a rather different and more nuanced picture. Policy discourses differed by nation with respect to: the scale of desired mobility; the characteristics of the ‘mobile subject’; engagement with ideas related to social justice; and the prioritisation given to outward mobility.

Scale and geography of desired mobility

Across the sample, mobility is not always understood in terms of what Finn has described as the binary between ‘hyper-mobility’ for overseas study on the one hand, and local higher education participation on the other hand. Indeed, in both Poland and Spain considerable emphasis is placed on stimulating intra-national mobility, to encourage more movement between national higher education institutions. This is discussed primarily, although not exclusively, for students who are completing their studies and considering a job in higher education. In both cases, intra-national movement is claimed to improve standards of teaching and research, as postgraduates and staff are exposed to new ideas and ways of working.

There is also divergence, across the six nations, with respect to the extent to which intra-European mobility is discussed. Documents from Spain, Ireland and Germany all devote considerable space to outlining the desirability of increasing intra-European mobility.

In contrast, however, European mobility is rarely mentioned in the policy documents from England and Denmark. There are clear links here to the wider geo-political context, with Spain, Germany and Ireland seemingly keen to associate themselves closely with the European political project, while Denmark and England are much more Eurosceptic in orientation. As a consequence of this broader political culture, it is perhaps unsurprising that both England and Denmark refrain from positioning their higher education policies within European frames of reference, and constructing the desirable mobile subject as primarily a European citizen-in-the-making.

Characteristics of and responsibilities for the inwardly mobile subject

Alongside differences in the scale of desired mobility are others that relate to the characteristics of the mobile subject and the imputed responsibilities for such students. Here the focus is on those who do cross national borders. For example, there are considerable differences, across the six nations, in relation to whether mobile students are seen as temporary visitors (common in England) or future residents (common in Germany and Denmark); and whether all prospective students are desired, or only those willing to stay and/or who are of the highest academic calibre.

Very significant differences are also notable in relation to the implied responsibility for mobile students and the extent to which concepts of social justice are presented as geographically bounded. While such limits are clearly articulated in some of the English documents, a more expansive view is taken in nearly all of the German documents that we analysed – where considerable steps had been taken to welcome refugee students into the higher education system. Both positions are consonant with respective national migration policies.

Outward mobility

In general, and as might be expected, considerably less space is devoted to discussing the mobility of home students than their international counterparts. However, this is not played out identically across the six countries: in both Germany and Ireland outward mobility appears a more important policy issue than in the other nations. This is related to the way in which it is positioned as a central plank in the formation of particular political identities within many of the German documents (seen as promoting tolerance and ‘European-ness’) and, within the Irish texts, is related to concerns about the low level of current outward mobility (associated with worries about the intercultural skills and employability of young people).

There is also significant variability in the way in which the outward mobility of graduates is discussed. Pervading some of the English documents is an assumption that such young people are largely immobile, underpinned by the clear assumption that they are unlikely to seek jobs abroad on graduation. In contrast, in both the Irish and Polish documents graduates are constructed as potentially highly mobile – to the detriment of the nation-state.  These reflect dominant assumptions on the part of policymakers about the relative strength and ‘pull’ of national labour markets, and perhaps also the stereotypes they hold about migration patterns.


Concluding thoughts

These findings suggest that, despite arguments that we have witnessed the increasing homogenisation of education policy and practice across Europe, significant national differences remain – at least with respect to the dominant policy constructions of mobile students. Many of these relate to local political factors, including migration, labour market dynamics and relationships with the EU.

While – by focussing exclusively on policy documents – this particular study has not been able to provide any evidence about the ways in which dominant constructions impact on students themselves, the significant diversity in representations documented here does at least suggest that very different messages may be taken up by prospective students about how they are understood and the welcome they are likely to receive in particular nation-states. This is something we are currently exploring as part of the wider Eurostudents project.



This blogpost is based on an article published recently in Geoforum.



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