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The New Politics of Global Academic Mobility and Migration


Edited By Fred Dervin and Regis Machart

This book brings together recent research on Global Academic Mobility and Migration (GAMM) from a variety of perspectives and contexts. There is now a widespread consensus that most countries and world regions are witnessing GAMM. Bringing together leading scholars from Australasia and Europe, this volume offers readers detailed account of the new politics of such acts of mobility and migration. The following key issues are dealt with: mobility determinants, social injustice, management and administrative problems, as well as teaching–learning challenges. The book invites students, researchers and practitioners to reflect further on the nature of today’s education on the move.
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The Erasmus Programme: Achievements, Inequalities and Prospects – An Overall Approach

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Magali Ballatore

The Erasmus Programme: Achievements, Inequalities and Prospects – An Overall Approach


Since the creation of the Erasmus programme more than 25 years ago, student mobility has been constantly encouraged and the participants have shown great satisfaction. Making skilled young Europeans more mobile is one goals of the European Commission. However the Erasmus programme concerns only a minority, less than 5% of European students. Erasmus is still far from achieving its 10% target of European higher education students being mobile during their studies as set originally and even farther from the target of 20% by the Ministers of Education of the Bologna signature countries in Louvain-La-Neuve in 2010 and reconfirmed in Bucharest in 2012 (Souto-Otero, Huisman, Beerkens, de Wit, & Vujić, 2013). The total number of mobile students has certainly increased, because of the institutionalisation of mobility, but are these students on an equal footing at the outset? In this article, which presents the results of an international comparative study (Ballatore, 2010) and summarises also a more recent literature on the topic, I wish neither to contest the policy that would like to give everybody the experience of mobility, nor to list the positive/negative effects of European programmes, but rather to question the drift and perverse effects of extended student mobility, which has focused mostly on quantitative goals. We may ask, in fact, in a context where the collective benefits of this programme remain uncertain, if it does not constitute a way of maintaining social inequalities, because of the institutional arbitration it involves and the individual strategies that it encourages among the participants. Does the Erasmus programme lead to democratisation of access to mobility, of the gains and opportunities that are linked to it? Is it possible to talk objectively about a single Erasmus experience? Are social reproduction and “distinctive” strategies, which are institutional and/or individual, also becoming transnational?

Broadly speaking, the Erasmus programme plays a part in personalising and differentiating student trajectories within an increasingly stratified European higher education system. We will look at this programme from three perspectives: its selectivity, the practices that it encourages and the integration of the ← 41 | 42 → students. At these three levels, we have noticed inequalities in the use of exchange programmes. In this chapter, we will first draw attention to the scant literature in the social sciences on international student migration. For many years, the standard academic migration literature has paid little attention to students as migrants. For decades, researchers did little more than draw attention to the need to study international student migration and suggest some frameworks and contexts for further research. What was clearly lacking, and what this chapter seeks to rectify, are larger-scale empirical surveys (qualitative and quantitative) of students who are actually migrating or who have migrated in the recent past.

What is also missing from the increasing amount of existing literature on student migration is an attempt to theorise the phenomenon. Here, I introduce several perspectives, which I will return to at various points in the ensuing analysis. First, the extent to which student migrants represent an elite group of more privileged students. Is the experience of studying abroad a marker distinguishing traditional higher education students from those from other backgrounds? Another theoretical perspective relates to the ways in which study abroad fits into the notion of the “do-it-yourself” biography of the “post-” or “late-modern” individual. This perspective corresponds to a reading of contemporary Western global society which focuses on mobility as its defining characteristic (Urry, 2002). Another useful analysis is the literature on individualisation and globalisation (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Although the authors do not specifically focus on students, Beck’s (2003) compelling analysis of the ways in which individuals have been extracted from the classic institutions of Western society (nation, ethnic group, work, family, and place) provides a useful context in which to frame student migratory behaviour. The contemporary individual, Beck (2003) asserts, is characterised by a level of choice and incentives unavailable to previous generations. Individualisation, choice and incentive “liberate” people from traditional roles and constraints, family and neighbourhood which are emptied of their meaning by recent and current deep social transformations. Student grants (including Erasmus) are an example of the many “incentives for action” available in Western societies through which an individual’s social advantage can be enhanced and a “normal biography” can be enriched by social and geographical mobility into an “elective” or “do-it-yourself biography” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002, p. 3).

After having drawn attention to the literature on international student migration, in the second and third parts of this chapter, I concentrate on international migration before and during the study programme, and especially on the phenomenon of the “Erasmus experience”, as sponsored mobility at an early age has a long-lasting influence on such individuals’ future propensity to be ← 42 | 43 → geographically mobile, especially in Europe. Finally, I shall give the results of more recent research, which explores the relationship between migration as part of an educational programme and subsequent career and personal mobility. The purpose of the present article is thus to report on one part of a larger research project on student and highly skilled migration in Europe.

1. Summary of the method of enquiry (Ballatore, 2010)

The empirical data come from a case study and a mixed analysis of questionnaires, interviews and observation surveys in three universities. The questionnaire was designed to test a set of hypotheses: Firstly, that the year aboard is not accessible or affordable for everybody and then that it does not automatically provide students/graduates with a more “European consciousness”, and a greater insight into European issues. Thanks to our questionnaire-based survey, we shed some light on questions of social advantage, repeated mobility and behaviours in the foreign countries. The questionnaire was translated into three languages (French Italian and English), and sent to all outgoing Erasmus students from Provence (France), Turin (Italy) and Bristol (UK) universities, who took part in the Erasmus programme in 2004–2005. The questionnaires were filled in upon their return to their university of origin. A shortened version of the same questionnaire was also given to a reference group of sedentary students in all three countries. The results of this enquiry were compared to previous data gathered by local, regional, national and international statistics offices.

The questionnaire was divided into the following main sections:

A. Level of study, personal details

B. Previous schooling and travelling before your time as an Erasmus student

C. Years at university, before becoming an Erasmus student

D. Daily life before departure

E. How the foreign university accommodated the students; the courses taken

F. Everyday life in the foreign country

G. Returning to home university and activities after stay abroad

H. Family background.

I analysed 758 questionnaires using the SAS software. Around half of the questionnaires were filled in by a control sample of non-Erasmus students randomly selected (394). The enquiry was carried out after class in the 3 universities, in different faculties. The sample reflects the distribution by faculty and by gender. The in-depth interviews were designed to question the “Erasmus graduates” on their migration past and paths, and their willingness to pursue subsequent ← 43 | 44 → career/migration paths in a foreign country. To answer a certain number of other questions, which were not hypotheses, on a more inductive base, a qualitative comparative analysis by observation was done in three countries, in different geographic areas (ranging from the Mediterranean area to the north of Europe, and including continental Europe), in which academic and migratory histories vary considerably. Thus, the data show results from a case study, which has benefitted from a mixed approach (using quantitative and qualitative methods).

Different categories of participants were interviewed between 2003 and 2005:

 37 Erasmus students, who took part in an exchange between 2000 and 2004

 17 Erasmus coordinators

 4 Administrative staff in international offices

In 2009, some of the students, who had already been interviewed or who had left their email addresses at the end of the questionnaire were re-interviewed, after they had graduated (52).

2. Multiplication of support measures and research on mobility

Students are an important element in global and European population mobility, especially in terms of highly skilled movements. My work is set within the context of international intra-European student mobility and looks especially at the “year abroad experience” which has been subsidised for more than 20 years by the Erasmus and Socrates programmes. Geographical mobility in Europe, as a tool for ensuring a high rate of employment and European competitiveness, is at the heart of the Member States’ preoccupations. This is why, in the last few decades, the number of measures and programmes that place emphasis on facilitating and encouraging students’ and workers’ mobility has risen. Mobile students can be defined as those who study abroad for either a degree or for a period of their study time. Mobility can be organised or institutionalised by higher education institutions or by the students themselves (free-movers). I call the first type organised or institutionalised student mobility. International higher education exchanges operate between organisations, which are in contractual relations (often at a research level) and include reciprocity, even if this principle is not always respected, because of linguistic supremacies and socio-economic inequalities that exist in Europe (Ballatore & Bloss, 2008). This kind of mobility can be described as “short-term”, because unlike spontaneous mobility – which describes students who have chosen to do an entire degree overseas – institutionalised mobility cannot exceed 12 months and is fully integrated into ← 44 | 45 → the curriculum of the university of origin. Apart from joint-degree courses, students participating in institutionalised mobility only obtain a degree from their university of origin. It is then expected that at the end of their stay, Erasmus students will return to their own country. The question is what happens once they finish their exams and obtain their degrees: does this kind of mobility give rise to other types of mobility?

Some authors argue that it is important to differentiate between “credit” and “degree” mobile students (the first is only temporary and the second refers to a stay abroad for the length of a whole academic programme), because only the degree mobile students would be highly motivated by the foreign university’s prestige and emphasise more employment-related aspects (Findlay, 2011; Erlich, 2012). Some evidence from our research shows that it is not so simple. Carlson (2013) and Findlay (2011) recently pointed out that despite the accumulated knowledge about the characteristics of mobile students, the push and-pull factors approach, the simple “behavioural models of the choice”, do not take into consideration some crucial aspects such as the importance of the cultural, social, political, migratory and economic contexts. Thus, it is necessary to connect the actual study-related move to previous phases and mobility experiences.

Sociologists have been remarkably slow to conduct in-depth studies of the migration behaviour of this increasingly numerous and strategically important fraction of the population. However, interests in student mobility has been increasing over the past years; this can be seen in the number of PhD dissertations on this topic since the end of 1990s in e.g. France (Lerot, 1999; Papatsiba, 2001; De Federico de la Rua, 2002; Garneau, 2006; Ballatore, 2007). Some studies, sponsored or carried out by the European Commission, which are essentially compilations of statistics, have also set the stage for a debate. The main comparative and quantitative research dedicated to the mobility of institutionalised students, by way of European exchange programmes, has focused on the evolution of orientation(s) in flow, and on the profiles and social characteristics of this population (Jallade, Gordon & Lebeau, 1997; Maiworm & Teichler, 1997; Cammelli, 2001; Pichon, Comte & Poulard, 2002). Several studies have also focused on daily life, experiences abroad and friends’ social networks and have developed the concepts of experiential learning and intercultural competencies in the context of mobility (De Federico de la Rua, 2002; Papatsiba, 2001; Murphy-Lejeune, 2001; Dervin, 2004; Agulhon & Xavier de Brito, 2009; De Carlo & Diamanti, 2013).

What is still missing from many student mobility studies is an analysis of how these mobile students enter the labour market. The data available are based generally on estimations made from opinion questions directed at students right ← 45 | 46 → after their stay abroad. Still limited in number, the studies tend to concentrate less on the initial migration flows resulting from the decision to study abroad, and more on the return or non-return of the graduates to their country of origin at the end of their foreign study programmes. One of the observations made is that students who have taken part in institutionalised mobility often have a better and easier entry in to the labour market, better jobs, and higher responsibilities compared to their “sedentary” colleagues (Opper, Teichler & Carlson, 1990; Maiworm & Teichler, 1996; Messer & Wolter, 2005). My research also focuses on the stay abroad and its impact on graduates’ futures from a qualitative perspective, underlining the fact that one of the questions that remains is how to disentangle which characteristics of this population are making labour-market entry easier: time spent abroad, social characteristics or educational background?

Although the survey by Opper, Teichler and Carlson (1990) found that 3/4 of the young people interviewed think that their time abroad was useful for finding their first job, the IZA survey (2005) concludes that the students’ advantages on the labour market were not linked to the experience abroad in particular, but are highly correlated with the educational and social characteristics of these students (Messer & Wolter, 2005). In addition, many professors emphasise that the Erasmus student population is to a large extent constituted of the “best students” from a given department, even if less “bright” students are also driven to expatriation in order to break with daily monotony in a context of increasing competitiveness and uncertainty (Ballatore, 2010). Moreover, certain individual predispositions to mobility and very different socio-economic contexts in Europe also play a role (indirectly) in the process of “international learning” that influences the professional mobility of Erasmus students during the course of their life.

3. A programme that does not challenge imbalances and inequalities

International student migration is clearly an important global phenomenon. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics [UIS] (2009), the number of mobile students globally increased to 3.4 million students in 2009, up from 2.1 million students in 2002. Around half of these international students study in Europe. Regarding the “sending” countries, Europe accounts for a third of the total. The four leading destination countries are the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. Looking at European trends, Teichler (2012) reminds us that statistics moves only gradually from “foreign” to “mobile” students and remains ← 46 | 47 → insufficient with respect to temporary mobility. Individual European countries use a variety of methods to count students. Hence an overview is difficult to give, even if some general trends are visible. The trends show that the Bologna process, in particular, contributed to the increased inwards mobility of students from other parts of the world, but not to a more rapid increase of intra-European Student mobility (Teichler, 2012). According to the 2009 study on “The Bologna Process in Higher Education in Europe: Key Indicators on the Social Dimension and Mobility” (EUROSTAT and EUROSTUDENT, 2009), which presents data on the exchange of foreign students and study abroad in Europe in recent years based on statistics jointly collected by the UNESCO, the OECD and Eurostat, the percentage of foreign students among all foreign students in the 27 EU countries increased from 5.4% in 2000 to 7.5% in 2006.

According to another study of the Academic Cooperation Association on 32 European Countries (ERASMUS-eligible countries and Switzerland), the overall increase is about 30% in relative figures and the rate of foreign students in these nations, being citizens of other European countries increased only from 3.0% in 1999 to 3.3% in 2007 (Kelo, Teichler & Wächter, 2006). Another study on 46 countries having joined the Bologna Process until 2009 shows that the percentage of foreign students in the EHEA has increased from 3.5% in 1999 to 4.6% in 2007 (CHEPS, INCHER-Kasel & ECOTEC, 2010). But the proportion of foreign students among all students varies considerably among European countries. The authors note rates of 15–20% in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Austria in 2007 as well as rates slightly above 10% in Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, but less than 1% foreign students are reported for example in Poland (Teichler, 2012).

The UK is one of the key players in the “Erasmus map” of intra-EU student exchanges. According to statistics on the website of the Education and Culture DG of the European Commission, the UK did not manage to narrow the gap between “incoming” and “outgoing” Erasmus students. In 2009/2010 the UK received twice as many students as it sent. The most popular destination countries were Spain, France, Germany and the UK. Like the UK, Ireland had a major imbalance of incoming over outgoing students. In contrast, it is mainly southern European countries (Italy, Portugal, and Greece) plus Finland, which are the net “exporters” of Erasmus students. If we look at the participation of the various institutions and countries, it seems that the Erasmus programme failed to reach its official goal of reciprocity of exchanges. Nowadays, the UK is still essentially an importing country; Italy remains an Erasmus student exporter, as do most southern European countries (except Spain). By and large, Erasmus students make their way to the north and west of Europe. Placements (traineeships) in ← 47 | 48 → companies or organisations (part of Erasmus since 2007–2008 and previously managed within the Leonardo da Vinci Programme) are the fastest growing action within the Erasmus Programme. Again the top destinations for students in 2009–2010 were Spain, the UK, Germany and France. In 2009 Spain sent aboard 31,158 students, overtaking France, the top sending country in 2008.

British universities are becoming increasingly selective and have also developed work placements. This can be explained by the financial difficulties that certain British students are experiencing and by university funding, which depends more and more on students’ fees (Erasmus students pay their fees in their university of origin, unlike overseas students). One consequence of the British universities’ policy regarding exchanges as a whole is not so much a balance, but instead an increase in the number of Erasmus students going to the Nordic countries or anywhere where courses are taught in English. Furthermore, the selection of departments in contract relations with British universities is becoming more severe (reinforcing the selective affinities between top-ranking institutions) as well as the social selection of students going to England.

In all the three countries under scrutiny, the most internationally orientated higher education institutions are also the most selective: in France it is the Grandes écoles, engineering and business schools. In Italy, most of the institutions involved are located in the north (Cammelli, 2001; Ballatore, 2010). In the UK, the universities that participate most in international student mobility are the oldest and most prestigious. And these institutions have exchange contracts with European counterparts that resemble them. Hence, Europe’s higher education institutions are structured according to an unequal order of prestige between establishments and more widely between cultural areas. To a certain degree, this order also has an impact on the social morphology of the population. The majority of the students’ parents had employment careers in the professions (teachers, managers, etc.). Despite the multiplication of the number of measures supporting student mobility, on average, this population has easy access to resources and considerable social advantages. The results of our study also show a significant over-representation of privileged social classes, which is even clearer in fields where language classes are not compulsory (Ballatore, 2010). Moreover, Erasmus students enrolled in non-selective university fields have, on average, a quicker education path and special migratory competences resulting from a rich “migratory” past.

Relating to previous mobility experiences, Murphy-Lejeune’s concept of mobility capital (2001) is useful. According to the scholar, mobility capital is a “sub-component of human capital, enabling individuals to enhance their skills ← 48 | 49 → because of the richness of the international experience gained by living abroad” (p. 51). As Carlson (2013) also stresses, the acquisition of mobility capital results from the interplay of different sources, while Murphy-Lejeune cautions against seeing the familial influence as being too overbearing. Our research shows however that families play a crucial part in giving a “taste for living abroad”. Indeed, as Brooks and Waters (2010) also argue, mobility capital should be “conceptualized as a form of capital which exists alongside the others identified by Bourdieu and which could be both converted into these other types and produced by them” (p. 54). Carlson (2013) also underlined that under specific conditions “weak ties” can also set students in motion (p. 174). This suggests that mobility capital, or migratory capital (Ballatore, 2010), may even exert its influence indirectly, allowing someone with little mobility capital to profile from another person’s richer endowment. Previous studies on the children of diplomats and expatriates have highlighted the important role specific education institutions play in the formation and social reproduction of what is often called a “transnational capitalist class” (Sklair, 2001; Moore, 2008).

The main studies on the socio-economic background of Erasmus students have been undertaken by the European Commission, but relied on students’ self-reporting. Students had to report the income status of their parents as being average, under or above average. This may generate some problems in the reliability of the data obtained (Souto-Otero, 2008; Ballatore & Bloss, 2008). In our study, on average, Erasmus students are from an upper-middle class background and their school careers, if not brilliant, are at least rapid. This can be illustrated by the age at which they take their A levels (the British equivalent of the French baccalauréat or Italian maturità), and also by the type of A levels they choose and the marks obtained. It can also be illustrated by their university careers. Erasmus students rarely, drop out work harder and have better results at university, compared with sedentary students. This result is more strongly marked in non-selective fields of study. In the same manner, the gap between Erasmus and sedentary students’ social origins widens when the students are from universities that do not have selective entry procedures (Ballatore & Boss, 2008). This is why Erasmus can be seen as a way of standing out, a sign of distinction. Finally this high social origin, on average, often goes hand-in-hand with an early international education.

The students with “pre-university international experience” and with better knowledge of foreign languages, were more likely to study abroad than those without such experience (Schnitzer & Zempel-Gino, 2002, pp. 107–109). More significantly, the 2000 Euro Students report concluded that “regardless of the general degree of international mobility in individual countries, 1⁄4 students ← 49 | 50 → from low-income families make substantially less use of the opportunities for studying abroad than do those from families with higher income” (Schnitzer & Zempel-Gino, 2002, p. 115).

Our questionnaires, the in-depth interview of the respondents, together with our participant observation abroad, show that to come from a more cosmopolitan family (one of the parents might be a foreign national, or may have lived abroad in their pre-university years) and/or have a significant travel experience, for instance, play an important role in the desire to study abroad. Erasmus students have travelled more than their sedentary counterparts, in particular attending language courses abroad or going on school trips. It is important, however, to remember that France and the UK are traditional countries of immigration, where the urge to “return to one’s roots”, or to one’s origins is present among certain children of immigrant background.

The experience of mobility varies considerably depending on national, institutional and social origins, as does the way Erasmus students are selected in the three universities chosen for this chapter. In our survey, at the University of Provence, the selection is often non-formalised. From the outset, it was left to the appreciation of an isolated Erasmus coordinator, without standardised criteria. On the contrary, in Turin, there is a competitive exam with the publication of official results. The brighter students have a first choice and the others take the remaining places. In the UK, the choice to go overseas has to be made in advance, certain courses offered by the university include a year in continental Europe and often require an extra year of study for the same degree. In all three universities, going on an Erasmus exchange involves additional costs. Exclusion policies do not operate nowadays in Europe at the secondary school level, but progressively, imperceptibly, during higher education, they exist in the form of selection within different fields of study: on entry (in the UK, and certain French and Italian schools), through deferred elimination (frequently in Italian and French universities), from high drop-out rates and students who are “fuori corsi”, and with the relegation of certain students to second rank fields of study, involving stigmatisation. Among other things, mobility allows students to stand out from the mass in devalued fields of study.

“Institutionalisation”, according to Bourdieu (1979), is one of the most accomplished forms of social recognition, because it procures the benefits of dignity and respectability of “general interest” enterprise, satisfying individual interests in an indirect way. For this reason, inequality in the use of “exchange” programmes is perceptible in the available possibilities and in the selection operated by the university of origin, but can also be observed in the way Erasmus students are hosted and their practices in foreign countries. ← 50 | 51 →

4. A comfortable and conformist Erasmus “bubble”?

How do students’ and graduates’ actual experiences match up to the description of an Erasmus student doing a “sabbatical” year, or a “year out”, as shown in Cédric Klapisch’s film “L’Auberge Espagnole” (2002, The Spanish Apartment)? In the questionnaires and interviews, I asked Erasmus and non-Erasmus students what kind of activities they had, with whom they had socialised in general before and during their year aboard. A minority of them, during their Erasmus year, socialised with host-country students. Most of them spent their free time with other foreign students and/or students from their home country, or a mixture of the two. Students’ social interactions can to some extent be predetermined by their accommodation arrangements, meaning that the Erasmus experience varied from one student to another. In fact, it is not possible to talk about a single mobility experience any more than it is to talk about a predominant type of a student, with a bohemian spirit, in search of his/her identity.

Depending on where the students came from and where they went (in geographical, social and institutional terms in particular), their behaviours in the foreign country differed. Between students from Bristol, who had already lived away from home and a student from Turin or Aix, who left home maybe for the first time, practices and discourses were different. A student looking to escape a difficult entry into the labour market (mostly the Italians going to the north of Europe) and students wanting to take a year out at a low cost (mostly British students in our sample), will behave in different ways. Even if sharing the same status makes them adopt some similar practices, Erasmus students still form a fractionalised body of ‘privileged foreigners’, evolving in differentiated institutional circuits. Why specify that sharing the same status brings them together? Because the Erasmus programme makes it easier to settle into the country of destination. Often students share the same places of residence, language courses and activities proposed by certain associations, they stick together in a comfortable “bubble”. We have also noted the creation of Erasmus student circles and, in the discourse, a feeling of belonging to a group, which can be illustrated by the expression “We, Erasmus”. This could also be seen as a desire to stand out from the rest. This feeling is much more prevalent among Erasmus students with a modest experience of mobility. We found for all of them, to varying degrees, some signs of international integration, with the transmission of the Erasmus “spirit”. Usually Erasmus students set themselves apart from other degree and mobile students. They have to deploy considerable energy to constitute and carry out their projects; at the same time, they often obtain a return on their investment. All these factors make their way of life different from that of the other students coexisting at the same university. ← 51 | 52 →

For the Erasmus population, we could say that their aim is social, rather than cultural integration. Erasmus students do not often mix with the host population as a whole. But they are part of a “global society” through the simple act of their mobility, learning the new norms of a Europe under construction, through an institution, the university. If we take the same indicators as those used by most studies on the integration of “migrants”, such as those of the Social Insertion and Geographical Mobility Inquiry (MGIS) by the French institute INED (in association with INSEE), we could say that migrants from the service class are not integrated, because most of the criteria used to determine successful socio-cultural and political integration in the case of “blue collar” immigrants are not reached by “privileged” migration in Europe.

Erasmus students develop a collective memory, and construct areas, which allow them to find the past in the present. More generally, upper-middle class migrants build themselves a familiar (material, linguistic and social) universe within the foreign country, limiting the break linked to the change of country. For them, this is not negating their national characteristics, but on the contrary, accumulating several linguistic and cultural skills, giving value to their experience. Underlining national characteristics are not always seen as problematical or a sign of ghettoisation. The specificity of a bourgeois education resides precisely in limited integration and acculturation in the host country. It is thus important to question not only the integration of particular different groups in the host society, but also to question the modalities of integration in a democratic European society. Do migrants have to be integrated, and why? It is more a question of collective participation, which is why Musterd (2003) gives an operational definition of the integration concept in five areas: educational, professional, social, political and residential participation. We conclude, as he does, that the positive relation between the phenomenon of segregation and the phenomenon of exclusion is not proven, because similar levels of segregation can lead to different levels of integration. Moreover, the Erasmus way of life in the foreign country seems to resemble that of the students in the French Grandes Ecoles or prestigious British universities. Contrary to popular belief, Erasmus students study, pass exams or write dissertations. They are very curious and interested by the way the universities and courses are organised in their host countries. But obviously, as most of the students, they also frequent parties, at which large quantities of alcohol are drunk. This could be explained by the students’ social origins, but it is also due to the fact that they are temporarily far from home, far away from the pressures of a competitive higher education system in which the power games remain local. ← 52 | 53 →

5. Unequal opportunities for young European skilled workers

In this final section of the chapter, I explore what happens to Erasmus student graduates after they have finished their degrees. As in the previous sections, my analysis is built around how studying abroad as an undergraduate will have important potential effects in later life, notably regarding career opportunities and the likelihood of travelling, living and working abroad. We have noted that career motivation was an important consideration for students choosing a degree programme that includes language study and a year abroad. The results show that Erasmus graduates are more likely to have applied for a job abroad, and considerably more likely to have made visits abroad to friends and on business. They also declared themselves more ready to move abroad and were the most ready to consider a career move to another non-European country. Bearing in mind that unemployment affects the young in particular in southern Europe, the importance of mobility has been put across in a manner that appeals to this group, who is urged to explore what Europe has to offer in terms of education, training and work. This is accompanied by exhortations such as “Travel broadens the mind”. Mobility is “sold” by the European Commission and education ministry websites in particular, as an enriching and rewarding experience for the individuals who undertake it. However Erasmus achievements and trajectories depend on the background, previous social and migratory paths, the field of study and the motivations of students (see Härkönen & Dervin in this volume).

Over the years the Bologna agenda has broadened. The terminology also indicates that the educational discourse in higher education moved gradually from “knowledge” and “achievement” to “learning outcomes”, “competences”, “employability”, in the course of the first decade of the 21st century (Teichler, 2012).

But more generally, in what ways do the social uses of institutionalised student mobility have an impact on entry into the labour market? Janson, Schomburg and Teichler (2009) looked at the statements of former Erasmus students in recent years to those of the earlier cohorts in 2009. They note a decline in the perception that the Erasmus experience had a positive influence on employment and work (from 71% to 54%). Using the language of the host country “orally” declined from 47% to 38% and “professional travel to host country” from 17% to 14%. The authors suggest a declining exceptionality of temporary study abroad, because the study and living environment becomes more international for students living in Europe, even if they do not study abroad as a consequence of “internationalisation at home”. ← 53 | 54 →

These interlocking discourses of mobility, European-ness and economic benefits frame the investigation I have carried out. My empirical data, collected through fairly large-scale interviews, have been designed to find out to what extent the “consumers” of the “mobility product”, in my case students experiencing a year abroad, feel that it has affected them in terms of knowledge and feelings about Europe, and affects any further migration they might do. First of all, we must say that international does not abolish national, just as increased mobility does not abolish economic and social inequalities in Europe. For example, evaluating the knowledge acquired during the stay is generally carried out at the university of origin. Moreover, the Erasmus stay is seen by professors mainly as an “experiential” form of education. Knowledge and its transmission in other countries are often criticised. At the same time, mixing different nationalities together, far from producing an “a-national” education area, creates instead a hierarchy among nations with regard to higher education, sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly.

Normand (2004) explains that educational policies in Europe have led to a convergence and harmonisation of the educational system by fixing new standards. But what he calls normalisation by quality, by standards and the gradual construction of a new cognitive framework, may also hide subjective judgments on quality. What criteria should be used to assess and judge the quality of a course? What are “development” and “quality” in education? The questions are not asked very often, as the superiority of certain models seems evident to governments.

Erasmus graduates, depending on their social origins, thus have a fairly accurate perception of the different levels in existing hierarchies (in countries, institutions, courses, and assessment). But contrary to the stereotype, stays abroad do not radically transform students. The changes take place more in their way of thinking than in their way of acting. On their return, Erasmus students fall back often into their old habits, but their approach might have changed. They adopt self-presentation strategies to give legitimacy to their choices and consolidate the positive social value of international mobility. It is thus more through their discourses than their practices that Erasmus students and coordinators seem to enhance experimental learning. This is because the Erasmus programme, in its present form, places the student at the heart of the process, rather than allowing bi-national teams to work on a shared cognitive project. It thus consecrates learning theories ideologically, constructing the individual as the actor of his own knowledge. The reign of individual fulfilment, family consumerism and egotism place the individual at the heart of society. Experiential learning is consensual, contrary to the previous normative vision, which ← 54 | 55 → generates conflicts. But the consensus can be both manipulated and malleable, because we can agree on the finality, without giving the same signification to the concept. In this context, how can it be assessed?

The emphasis on experimental education could be understood in a context of increasing tension between general and professional training. The process of student professionalisation appears to be an essential goal, as social integration is achieved, massively, by professional integration. Stays abroad seem to transform secondary socialisation, building micro-societies whose rules are unstable. It is the socialisation method for Erasmus students that is imperatively linked to acquiring the traditional mission of a university, and becomes an explicit apprenticeship goal, which can be questioned. For the students, the stereotypes associated with the feeling of national belonging often remain. What weakens them is more the fact of coming from a mixed family or of having lived in an international environment before (particularly in halls of residence). Furthermore, the Erasmus circle does not last long. The relationships that are actively preserved are the ones that are the closest (between students from the same country or the same city for example), except, of course, in the case of students who go abroad again or would like to do so, which is often the case among Italians in our sample, because of a certain lack of opportunities for highly skilled graduates in Italy. This can be understood by the characteristics of the labour markets in the three European countries under review.

Employment prospects for young people with a higher education degree vary greatly depending on national labour market sectors. The situation differs from one European country to another, with considerable differences in the length of periods of work or unemployment. Moreover, the variability of young people’s difficulties on the labour market can be observed by looking at inactivity. According to OECD data (2001), Italy has a low rate of return on investment in education. On the contrary, Britain has one of the highest rates in Europe. In a service society, like Britain, the service sector employs over a quarter of the working population. On the contrary in Italy it employs barely 10%. These structural differences seem to correlate with the variability in young people’s entrance in the labour market and more particularly with that of former Erasmus students. In some countries, such as Italy, where young skilled workers have to wait a long time before entering the labour market, taking a job in a foreign country can be a means of becoming more competitive and entering a market with restricted opportunities. Scherer (2005) underlines that labour market entry takes an exceptionally long time in Italy. But she also observes that those who succeed in doing so are often in stable jobs; on the contrary, on the British labour market for example, job changes are frequent. Stability and instability, the ← 55 | 56 → legislation concerning work, the continuity or discontinuity in careers in the various countries, all play an important role in the choices that Erasmus students make at the end of the mobility period and after graduating.

The expatriation or emigration of certain young skilled workers could in fact be seen as a temporary solution for escaping the difficulty of finding a qualified job at home. We have observed how students construct social networks during their stay abroad. In addition, an ISTAT report (in Scherer, 2005) observes that the Laurea [master’s degree] reduces the probability of being unemployed only after the age of 30 in Italy. Scherer (2005) describes it as a “bottle neck situation” (p. 435). As Erasmus students are younger that the rest of the student population, we can understand the desire formulated by many Erasmus students to start their career in a foreign country. Hence, on returning to their country of origin, Erasmus students are not all equal in terms of return on reinvestment and valorisation of their stay abroad. For most Erasmus students from Northern Europe, a stay abroad seems to reinforce their employability in a nationally-orientated career. For the young qualified Italians, even if the motivations are similar, their trajectories sometimes lead them to spend a long time in an international “limbo”.

Table 1: Erasmus students’ academic and professional projects - 2004–2005 (in percentage) [UP= University of Provence, UT= University of Turin, UB= University of Bristol]


Source: Ballatore (2010).

As Table 1 shows, most of the British students want to work in their home country. The 10% of students who want to work abroad are often students ← 56 | 57 → studying foreign languages. On the contrary, more than 30% of Italian students want to study and/or work in a foreign country. I also met a lot of Italian students at Bristol University, who were former Erasmus students. I noticed then that short-term mobility had been undertaken in a very positive way, as a means of achieving emancipation, but when the students became trapped by their mobility, their enthusiasm diminished. Economic and social burdens then reappeared, which are all constraints we would like to forget, preferring to think that we act on our own free will. It seems for example that in Italy, massive emigration of poor workers has been replaced by selective emigration of skilled workers and academics (in other words white collar emigration), whose effects in economic, demographic and social terms have yet to be studied.


In this chapter I have identified the following key points. Like many researchers, I reiterate my belief that more attention needs to be paid to international student migration around the world, not just in terms of South to North flow, but also stressing migration within Northern regions and in Southern regions too. I agree with the OECD (2001) that a panorama of qualified labour flows cannot ignore international student mobility (p. 3). I thus see value in theorising student mobility and migration in terms of the complex relationships between individualisation and globalisation (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Nowadays, in Europe, the scientific accumulation of studies, since the quantitative work carried out by Maiworm and Teichler (1996), plays a role in better understanding student migration as part of the construction of individualised life-paths and makes obvious how fruitful it is to interconnect student mobility with previous life trajectory. The most obvious finding on the international mobility of students is that mobile students cannot be viewed to be a single group (Vincent-Lancrin, 2009; Ballatore, 2010), even if on average this population has easy access to resources and considerable social advantages.

Maybe the clearest changes with regard to my survey undertaken at the beginning of the 21st century, is the widespread ideal of mobility, the multiplication of measures supporting student movements and the increasingly use of cheaper air fares, e-mail and smartphones, which allow constant communication between individuals scattered all over the world. Despite this fact, along with global, technological and market factors, and despite the vast mechanism of EU sponsorship of the Erasmus and Socrates programmes, student mobility has not attained the scale that was initially imagined. Mobility still reaches only a minority of higher education students. Questions of cost and international ← 57 | 58 → socialisation loom large here. Opportunities to participate in higher education programmes abroad do not seem to be readily taken up, especially by those who lack experience in international contacts in their family and school backgrounds. Other outcomes relating to socialisation patterns before and during the year aboard show that the Erasmus stay is not for everybody a sabbatical year (as it is often thought of). Erasmus students are usually quite “bright” and have activities not very different from their class and age groups in their countries of origin. An “international” background simply predisposes them to choose to study aboard.

I have also found convincing evidence that the Erasmus stay serves often as a trial run for further geographical moves, but that the perceptions and constructions of the host-country’s society change very slowly overtime – even after several moves, because mobility programmes in southern and northern Europe are not invested with the same stakes. That is why I talk about inequality in the use of “exchange” programmes. The Erasmus stay, and more generally education, are vectors for power relations outside the higher education system. Institutionalised student mobility seems to foster the development of learning strategies, both individual and collective, which are increasingly precocious and variable, imposed by renewed power relations.

Taking into account the recent politics in Europe, it seems that national and European governments want more autonomous HE institutions and more mobile people. In fact, it is difficult not to approve of autonomy and mobility for their inherent and intrinsic values. But the crucial question is what autonomy, what type of mobility, and for whom? We must study the context in which it happens, because not every European country, not every university and not every student is on an equal footing at the outset. Under the guise of differences, the economic, social and migratory imbalances that already exist in Europe might be reinforced. Student mobility unfortunately does not always fulfil teachers’ educative, social and cultural expectations.


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