Erasmus Skills: unpacking the employability benefits of mobility

Erasmus Skills

Most of us are tired of hearing the words “unprecedented” and “2020” in one sentence. It is true that last year was different, certainly when it comes to physical movement of people, and to student mobility. Within the Erasmus+ project ‘Erasmus Skills’, we were about to hold our final conference to disseminate our results when the global pandemic hit. It caused us to postpone and adapt our conference to a digital format. However, that does not mean our project findings have lost value, nor that the value of mobility evaporated for students’ employability – maybe even the contrary.

Let’s start from scratch: Study abroad and student mobility are seen as positive indicators for enhanced employability, however only when students are able to unpack what they have gained while being abroad. We are all too familiar with a student saying it was ‘great fun’. Even though this was undoubtedly the case, students will need to dive deeper when they want to maximise the employability benefits of their mobility. The Erasmus Skills project is designed to help students, practitioners and employers understand the added value that international student mobility brings. This article will look at the outcomes of the project from an institutional perspective, the student side and the perceived added value of mobility for employers.

When the Erasmus Skills project started in 2018, there was mainly anecdotal evidence to back up the idea that spending time abroad carries value. Measuring the impact of student mobility on employability outcomes remains difficult. In the Erasmus Skills project, a group of higher education and related institutions got together to test the assumptions around the benefits of study abroad and exchange experiences, and to find common ground for employability outcomes. As part of the project, we developed an instrument for self-assessment of mobility outcomes for students, as well as a guide and a webinar for university practitioners and academics to be able to support soft skills acquisition in Erasmus students. 

Helping students understand what they've gained abroad

The Erasmus Impact Study shows that students indicate that they feel their participation in Erasmus was beneficial for finding their first job and had a positive impact on their career development. In addition, the ESN survey 2019 showcased a positive impact on their personal development, as their mobility impacted their engagement in society as an active citizen as well as social, civic and democratic participation.

Students need to be able to reflect on their learning experience in order to conceptualise what they have learned, what skills they have acquired and how their exchange has changed their views on the world and their behaviour towards other people.

According to Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory of Kolb, concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are gathered into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn that lead into new actions and changes in behaviour. In order for the exchange period to have a lasting impact on the student, a guided reflection process is therefore essential in order to maximise the understanding of the experience and how this has impacted the student.

Institutional perspective: mobility unpacked

It is not only important for higher education institutions to offer different support along the international student lifecycle, but also to have the knowledge and tools on how to support the students in their learning path abroad. A way of doing that is by offering comprehensive and adapted support services and trying to help them reflect on their learning process and the acquired competences, understood as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs), gained during their exchange experience. As part of the Erasmus Skills project, we have created a tool for exchange students to measure KSAs before and after their stay abroad. This is a self-assessment tool that helps measure the development progress of students in relation to KSAs. It is included in the Erasmus+ mobile App and also includes recommendations on sources of relevant information for students during their period abroad to help them during the adaptation process.

Moreover, the team collected initiatives, activities or services that have been carried out by higher education institutions in order to: (i) support students in developing knowledge, skills and attitudes during their mobility period; and (ii) assist (academic or administrative) staff in supporting students to gain some of those KSAs. Several active and passive initiatives in higher education institutions have been found to support the development of KSAs both before and during the mobility experience. However, hardly any initiatives have been found supporting returning students.

As mentioned before, all stages of the international student lifecycle are important to maximise the student’s learning period. In the returning stage, initiatives and services offered in the home institution could be very valuable: they provide advice and serve as a self-reflection mechanism for reintegration and identification of learning outcomes.

Added value to employers

As part of the Erasmus Skills project, webinars have been organised for students to understand the importance of the European identity and how to maximise their Erasmus+ mobility. These pilot projects were delivered pre-COVID. During summer 2020, with appropriate social distancing in place, a final recording was made, to support all Erasmus students to get the most out of their mobility experience and turn it into career success. The global pandemic may have limited physical mobility in 2020, but it also underlined the fact that an understanding of cultural differences is a key skill for young people to build their careers. Our work may be largely virtual right now, but that does not mean cultural differences have evaporated.

Any employer that we spoke to made it very clear that they will still value global experience and people with the skills our research identified as critical. However, employers underlined that they will need more proof of what the students have gained in their mobility exchanges. The ability to translate what you have learned while being in another European country, and how this can add value to your job, has become even more critical.

Next to asking the job interview question ‘tell me what you’ve gained abroad’, they may ask the question: ‘tell me your COVID-19 story’. The parameters may have shifted, but the importance for students to share what they have learned and how they can act proactively remains essential, and higher education institutions need to continue supporting their students in this area. We hope you will join us on 25 February for the Erasmus Skills conference to continue the discussion.

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Adriana Perez-Encinas
Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM), SpainAdriana is a Lecturer and Researcher at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

Wim Gabriels
Erasmus Student Network, BelgiumWim is Projects and Policy Manager at the Erasmus Student Network (ESN).

Nannette Ripmeester
Expertise in Labour Mobility, the NetherlandsNannette Ripmeester is International Mobility Expert & Director at Expertise in Labour Mobility & i-graduate.