Europe in crisis: what does it mean for mobility?

Europe in crisis: what does it mean for mobility?

This next post in our series comes from Siegbert Wuttig, winner of the 2015 Constance Meldrum Award for Vision and Leadership. Having  worked for over a quarter of a century in the field of international higher education cooperation, Siegbert was honoured for his significant contributions to the political discussions on the development of EU education programmes and the European Higher Education Area. Here he shares his thoughts on the future of Erasmus-student mobility.

Eight years after the beginning of the financial crisis, the current state of Europe seems to be deplorable in view of the manifold unsolved problems, not only in the finance sector. Many are voicing their concerns about the future of our continent and especially of the EU. At present, the refugee crisis and its potential political, financial and societal consequences are in the centre of interest. More than one million people have found their way from crisis areas to Europe, and no end is in sight. As a result of this development, the financial and debt crisis in the Eurozone moves into the background of public attention, although its negative impacts are still being clearly felt, especially on unemployment among young people and labour mobility. For example, “outflows from Greece and Spain have more than doubled in recent years”. Moreover, the crisis has led to a diversion of mobility flows. Labour immigration from the periphery of Europe, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, to the countries in crisis has decreased considerably and increased significantly into the UK, the Nordic countries and in particular into Germany.

How is the crisis affecting academic mobility in Europe?

As regards Erasmus mobility, there seem to be no negative effects. According to the figures for 2013–2014, recently published by the European Commission, “the data reveals that a record number of students (272 000) and staff (57 000) took part compared to any previous year”. This trend towards increased mobility is apparently also valid for the first year of Erasmus+. However, a more detailed analysis of student mobility, for example, shows a very different mobility development per country. Moreover, the geographical destinations of mobility and also the mobility types have changed. In particular, placement mobility has gained great importance over the last years. Whereas the mobility for studies has only increased by roughly 26%, the number of placements has almost doubled since the beginning of the crisis in 2008. This is not surprising, as work placements seem to be the best way to improve the chances of graduates on the labour market in times of crisis.

Let’s now have a closer look at student mobility from and to some so-called countries in crisis. The total number of outgoing students from Spain, the leading country in outward and inward Erasmus mobility, has, for the first time, decreased in the academic year 2013–2014. The statistics reveal, however, that the decline can only be seen in study mobility (-10% compared to 2011–2012, the year with the highest mobility), certainly also because of the worsened financial situation. On the other hand, placement mobility of Spanish students has increased by 21.5%. By comparison, German placement mobility has only increased by 8.7% in the same period. In Greece, the demand for placements has grown even much more than in Spain (+ 68% compared to 2011–2012).

The destinations of mobile students, too, have somewhat changed. More and more Erasmus students go to Germany to undertake study or a placement; around 31 000 in 2013–2014 (+3000 compared to 2011–2012). Especially the share of trainees rose by 22.4% up to 8154. This is also true for the UK as destination for placement mobility (+26%). Almost every third European Erasmus trainee meanwhile goes to the UK or Germany; seemingly no wonder in view of the relatively good economic situation in both countries. It is surprising, however, that increasingly more trainees also go to Spain (+15.3% compared to 2011–2012) and to Greece (+31.5%). Consequently, the economic situation of a country alone is not sufficient to explain these mobility patterns. This assumption has also been confirmed by the mobility of Spanish trainees. On the one hand, it is evident that more of them go to their main target countries, the UK (+20.8%) and Germany (+20.4%). On the other hand, the increase of placement mobility from Spain to Portugal (+38%) and France (+37%) is much higher. Seemingly, placement mobility with neighbouring countries gains importance, especially in times of crisis.

As regards mobility for studies, most of the European Erasmus students (53%) still go to one of the top 5 target countries, namely Spain, France, Germany, the UK and Italy. But the magnitude of mobility flows to the single countries has changed. Compared to 2011–2012, fewer students go to all top 5 host countries, with the exception of Germany (increase of 7.5%).

What will Erasmus-student mobility look like in the coming years?

The European crisis certainly will continue for some time. Nevertheless, intra-European credit mobility will still increase, but not according to demand and the politically wishful magnitude, as the EU budget for Erasmus+ does by far not grow as promised. Moreover, the implementation of the loan scheme for Master mobility is uncertain. Due to strict requirements and a limited budget, international credit mobility beyond Europe is an alternative only for a low number of students. Erasmus Mundus degree mobility is fantastic as regards quality, but can contribute only little to increase mobility because of high costs and the small number of projects.

Placement mobility will see even much more demand than today. But more has to be done for graduate placement mobility, which is important to facilitate access to the labour market. At present, this mobility type is hardly on demand; possibly because institutions of higher learning do not feel responsible or do not have free capacities to deal with this issue; the latter, by the way, also due to the heavy administrative burden in implementing Erasmus+, which absolutely needs to be changed.

For the period beyond 2020, the question arises: would it not be better to increase and improve intra-European mobility by investing more money in structural and sustainable framework conditions of mobility at higher education institutions than in providing masses of administratively heavy and low individual mobility grants?