Universities must do more to integrate foreign students and staff if they want to ‘internationalise’ their campus and classrooms.
This is the stark message in a new report from the European University Association (EUA).
It is a particularly hot issue for European countries, such as Lithuania and Hungary, where international students seldom speak the local language.
‘Isolated’ international students
With foreign students in separate classes taught entirely in English, on courses shun by home students, the international fee-payers can find themselves in ‘isolated groups’ detached from local and international credit-seeking students and missing out on the kind of ‘mobility experience’ they hoped to experience while studying abroad.
That’s a big concern for the EUA, which collaborated with the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA) to produce the paper Connecting mobility policies and practice: Observations and recommendations on national and institutional developments in Europe.
It is based on the results of Mobility Policy-Practice Connect (MPPC) project, which was supported by the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Commission, and other related studies since 2009, when the 20% mobility target for the European Higher Education, or EHEA, was first agreed.
The MPPC study was carried out in partnership with the Lithuanian University Rectors’ Conference (LURK), the Conference of French University Presidents (CPU) and the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference (MRK) – with workshops and focus groups being held as well as a visit to a university in each of the three countries.
Critical for the mobility experience
The findings show that universities realise that “integration of international students and staff is increasingly becoming a critical issue for the quality of the individual mobility experience”.
Not only that, integration helps internationalise the campus and classroom and promotes outgoing mobility by generating interest in new study destinations and research fields, particularly for students and staff who had not previously considered mobile opportunities.
The EUA-ACA paper says: “Many institutions are trying to address this issue by examining recruitment policies and focusing on the overall quality of the mobility experience, which can include language learning, social integration and enhancing student/staff exposure to academic and cultural differences.”
Break down language barriers
One obvious way to break down the barriers between international and local students is through a comprehensive language policy, says the report.
On the one hand foreign-language programmes, usually in English, are seen as a vehicle for internationalisation and more specifically to attract international students – with legislative barriers to teaching in foreign languages being recently dismantled in France and Lithuania.
On the other hand, teaching in English is still contested by faculty, and sometimes by students, and ‘the practical reality is that not all teachers and students are well prepared for English-taught courses’.
“Developing a coherent language policy may be highly beneficial, not just regarding teaching in foreign languages/English, but also regarding the integration of larger groups of international students and staff members, preparing domestic students and staff to be mobile, preserving linguistic integrity and generally internationalisation at home.”
The authors recommend training international students in the domestic language, something that has become mandatory in some institutions in France and is generally offered in Lithuania and Hungary. “Some knowledge of the domestic language is crucial for integration into the society and culture of the host country beyond the university campus.”
Even on the campus, with a few notable exceptions mostly in the Netherlands, “administrative service units such as libraries, housing and welfare services or student counsellors still function only in the domestic language”.
International work placements, which can now be funded through the Erasmus+ programme, are proving very popular in countries like Lithuania.
They are a ‘great tool’ to connect both incoming and outgoing students with host companies, which can become potential employers, says the report.
They also help students create a professional network of contacts in the host country, which they can use after graduation. However institutions raised concerns about how to measure the quality of some placements.
Different priorities for countries and universities
Differences between institutional and national policies towards internationalisation and student mobility were highlighted during the MPPC workshops and focus groups in France, Hungary and Lithuania.
For example, in France and Lithuania attracting foreign students is a high policy priority at national level. However institutions also want to enhance the quality of outgoing mobility, and want this better articulated in national higher education strategies.
Increasing the number of joint degrees on offer is another priority in all three countries examined, yet legislative barriers for both offering and quality-assuring such degrees remain a problem.
Linking highly skilled foreign students to local labour market needs is a topical issue for national governments, although this is a secondary feature of institutional strategies where the primary interest is enhancing academic collaboration
In Hungary, outgoing credit mobility has gained traction as a national priority, but the recent increase in grants on offer is still not fully exploited.
Incoming international degree-seeking/fee-paying students in specific disciplinary areas remain critical for institutions as they compensate for an underfunded sector.
No recipe book for mobility
The paper says there is no recipe book for creating a successful national strategy for mobility, no one- size-fits-all approach.
However, they do suggest a list of basic ingredients to be adapted, according to national ‘taste’, and stress: “Drafting a national strategy is not, in itself, the most difficult task; implementation is”.
They go on: “Good national strategies are never the single-handed act of the ministry of (higher) education, but rather the result of cooperation and dialogue with other competent ministries (of research, internal affairs, employment, foreign affairs, etc.), with the higher education institutions, with the students and ideally with the social partners.
“Good national strategies should provide enough guidance and incentives for institutional-level actions, while still leaving enough flexibility for individual institutional take-up and target-setting.”
The paper’s key recommendations for national strategy development include:
• While outgoing credit and incoming degree mobility are the most common promoted student mobility types, don’t ignore the value of incoming credit mobility and don’t see outgoing degree mobility as simply ‘brain drain’.
• Remember European countries need graduates with a profound knowledge of other countries and world regions, which can be obtained through longer stays abroad.
• While geographic priorities may be helpful in concentrating efforts and funding, they should not stifle organically driven research and academic cooperation interests that may develop at the institutional-level.
• Don’t accept the vague terms that too many European countries use to express their mobility ambitions. Clear targets and timelines are required which can be either quantitative – like the current European benchmark of having 20% of European graduates with a mobility experience by the year 2020 – or qualitative (e.g. improving the mobility experiences of mobile students, enhancing the recognition of credits, etc.), or ideally, a mix of the two.
• Provide appropriate funding for different forms of mobility, conduct impact studies, support pilot initiatives (mobility platforms, for example) and encourage experimentation.
• Include structural reforms, such as allowing for more flexibility of the curricula, removing legislative obstacles to teaching in foreign languages or creating joint degrees.
• Enhance recruitment possibilities for international staff and facilitate staff sabbaticals. Without such support instruments, policies and strategies are bound to remain simple rhetoric.
Click here to read the full 25-page Connecting mobility policies and practice: Observations and recommendations on national and institutional developments in Europe report.
It was written by Elizabeth Colucci, Irina Ferencz, Michael Gaebel and Bernd Wächter and based on the results of the EU-supported ‘Mobility Policy-Practice Connect (MPPC) project.
This looked at three European countries. The focus in France was on strategies and tools to promote the outgoing (short-term) mobility. In Lithuania, the emphasis was on incoming student and staff mobility and policies to attract and retain talent. In Hungary, the objective was to access recent programmes to enhance both incoming and outgoing mobility and how they impacted on the internationalisation of Hungarian higher education.
The new MPPC report builds on the earlier MAUNIMO project, carried out by the EUA and four universities – Marburg, Oslo, Swansea and Trento – which looked at ways to map student and staff mobility.
* Also read my blog Students: mapping the mobile ones in Europe, written after attending the MAUINMO seminar at the University of Oslo in September 2012.
Main photo: From University of Leeds