Mobility is not a value in itself: intercultural education resources for mobile students

Mobility is not a value in itself: intercultural education resources for mobile students

The recently approved Erasmus+ programme is expected to offer the opportunity of a period of international mobility to over four million Europeans in the seven years between 2014 and 2020. Studying or gaining a traineeship experience abroad are conceived as essential for young people to develop the personal, academic, professional and intercultural skills and competences required in a knowledge-based global economy. However, does immersion in diversity really open up opportunities for intercultural learning? 

A number of studies on the development of intercultural skills and competences have shown that first-hand experience of ‘otherness’ and even sojourns in a foreign country are not sufficient conditions to foster interculturality. Both study abroad and intercultural education literature state that, in addition to experience, intercultural learning needs reflection and analysis, and that immersion in a different culture does not in itself reduce stereotypical perceptions of otherness. Much of the rhetoric coming from national and European institutions and present in their programmes implies that mobility automatically offers students a transformative experience, often positively impacting on their future lives. But considering mobility as a value in itself may distract from focusing on the quality of the experience abroad, in other words, on the factors which can influence and foster the development of intercultural skills. In addition, by putting emphasis simply on increasing the numbers of students who spend a period of residence abroad, higher education institutions may forget the core principles of intercultural education, which are to render mobility an opportunity for reflecting on one’s own and others’ identities, for developing critical thinking, and for promoting the principles of social justice and anti-discrimination.

Developing an intercultural path for Erasmus students

The aim of the IEREST Project (Intercultural Education Resources for Erasmus Students and their Teachers) is to develop a set of teaching modules (an ‘Intercultural Path’) which higher education institutions can offer to Erasmus students before, during, and after their experience abroad, in order to encourage learning mobility and to support students in benefiting as much as possible from their international experiences in terms of personal growth and intercultural competencies. IEREST is an Erasmus Multilateral Project co-funded by the European Commission (LLP 2012–2015) and coordinated by the University of Bologna, Italy. By 2015, it will have developed and tested specific resources, which will be freely available on a web platform, for higher education institutions interested in offering an Intercultural Path to their outgoing and incoming students. Thanks to a collaboration among European higher education institutions, outgoing students will receive intercultural support before, during and after their study abroad experience, while they also attend a module in the host university, as incoming students.

Through the IEREST Intercultural Path, the Erasmus+ programme will have an additional resource to put into practice its ambitious objectives and prepare an increasing number of young Europeans for the challenges and opportunities of a highly-interconnected world.

Existing intercultural support to mobility

Over the years there have been remarkable improvements, often thanks to the Lifelong Learning Programme, in services offered by European higher education institutions to mobile students, at both academic and non-academic levels, such as counselling services, language training, and courses provided through the medium of English. However, these do not seem to include intercultural education offerings. Very few European institutions provide intercultural education/communication modules expressly aimed at mobile students; most limit their services to providing information on procedures to be dealt with in host institutions (including application for courses or accommodation) and country-specific information. Such courses are mostly taught by administrative staff and adopt an instrumental and essentialist approach aimed at facilitating students’ adaptation to the new context.

Beyond essentialism: the IEREST teaching activities

The term ‘intercultural’ is a polysemic term which entails very different approaches to cultural matters within education. The IEREST materials and activities are based on a non-essentialist paradigm, according to which ‘interculturality’ does not mean comparing two or more countries, nor learning to adapt to a specific ‘national culture’. Rather, the concept implies, for example:

  • Understanding how different types of identities (eg gender, age, racial, ethnic, national, geographical, historical, linguistic) impact on communication with others;
  • Interpreting what people say about their culture as evidence of what they wish others to see about themselves, rather than as the ‘truth’ about a particular culture;
  • Exploring the role of power in dominant discourses (media, political, institutional) and reflect on how these discourses affect the way we perceive people from other backgrounds.

The IEREST teaching activities also aim to help students analyse and be critical towards the myths related to study abroad (as an opportunity to improve one’s language skills, to make new friends, to change one’s identity, etc) in order for them to (re)frame expectations about the mobility period and develop their awareness of their own personal approach to their sojourn abroad. The activities have been designed to combine theory with experiential learning, addressing the four learning modes in Kolb’s cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation.

Looking to the future

There is no doubt that student mobility has the potential to be a crucial learning experience for university students. The European Commission has shown it is ready to pursue its policies and invest significant funds to encourage this mobility. It is high time that higher education institutions take the responsibility, not only for the administrative and organisational aspects of their students’ sojourn abroad. If, in a way, Erasmus+ focuses on quantity, quality is in the hands of the universities themselves. If university students are to fully profit from an experience of residence abroad, it is crucial that they are offered the tools to reflect on, analyse, and learn from such experience. This would put them in a better position to reap the benefits of the investment.

ByAna Beaven and Claudia Borghetti, University of Bologna, Italy