Understanding the international student experience

Understanding the international student experience

The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is the largest student association in Europe. We support students at the local level in host institutions and advise outgoing students, but we also advocate for the general improvement of exchange programmes in Europe. For the past 10 years, ESN has carried out a survey – with over 129 000 responses – examining student issues in terms of academics, social impact and international student life. The 2015 survey focused on measures accompanying Erasmus, the integration of international students, the economic impact of Erasmus on societies, and international student satisfaction with student associations.

Economic impact

Mobility has a socioeconomic impact on receiving countries. Students not only spend money on accommodation and food, but they also travel, visit new cities and join in more cultural and social activities than they might do in their home countries. According to the latest ESNSurvey data, more than 25% of mobile students visited more than 10 cities in their host country and an average of 3.2 countries during their period abroad, staying in paid accommodations 68% of the time. Family and friends tend to visit international students or trainees and, in 2015, more than 40% of these visitors stayed in paid accommodation for an average of four days. Mobility is, in this sense, likely to have a positive impact on host countries’ economies – also boosting smaller local economies.

Enhancing and promoting employability skills in young students are core elements of the Erasmus+ programme. Around 21% of students returned to their host countries to continue their studies or to start working. Students are eager for change and often aim at living abroad after a mobility period in another country. Although Erasmus+ is a successful programme, not all students can afford to go abroad due to financial constraints.

Local integration

Our data shows that international students integrate insufficiently with locals, and that interactions are forged primarily through classes, group assignments and activities organised by student associations. Accommodation appears to be important for fostering integration. In fact, mixed accommodation has a significant impact on the adaptation of international students into local communities. Our study found that 35% of students live with only international students, while 38% of students live in mixed accommodation. International-only accommodation was reported as being available in 43% of universities. Meanwhile, we believe that universities that offer accommodation in dormitories with only international students help to create an ‘international bubble’ that is detrimental to student integration into the local environment.

Language is also a key aspect of integration, but 7% of students reported not taking language courses because they were too expensive. The number of students that did take a language course but had to pay for it out of pocket is 33%. In this respect, 60% of students agreed that ESN language-related activities helped them integrate into the host environment.

Besides language preparation, accompanying measures before, during and after mobility should be provided by higher education institutions – in accordance with the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE). That said, only half of students received information on their host university, city and country; 46% received information on the Erasmus Students’ rights and obligations, and only 31% received information on courses or health and safety.

Reintegration measures are also important to help students re-enter their own communities. Currently, few institutions have programmes to support international students reintegrate into their home institutions. Only 17% of students received any type of counselling after their exchange. Of those who did, 58% found it helpful.

Using this information

ESNSurvey data can be used to improve practice. Its results can lead practitioners to consider paying closer attention to student preparation for the mobility period but also to student reintegration; developing new funding schemes for mobility; taking advantage of the social, cultural and economic boost that mobility brings; etc. Higher education institutions, national governments, EU level governments and other social organisations can use these findings to continue making the Erasmus exchange experience a great success. For ESN, exchange programmes in Europe are and must continue to be one of the pillars of educating students in an always dynamic Europe.

For more information on the survey and its findings, visit the ESN website.

Adriana is Lecturer and Researcher at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain and Jesus is Project Coordinator of the ESNSurvey 2015 at Erasmus Student Network, Belgium.

Sign up for the upcoming EAIE Academy to learn more about the topic.

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