Are the European University Alliances boosting student mobility as hoped, or are students facing the same old barriers? In the context of Alliances, the inequities and obstacles in access to mobility opportunities currently seem even more striking. The situation is not helped by the fact that maintaining Alliances diverts attention and energy away from mobility.
With the new Erasmus+ programme funding period came several new activities, including the European Universities Initiative. It aims to create 60 university alliances across Europe by the middle of 2024, involving at least 500 Higher Education Institutions to foster cooperation, including the mobility of students. The mobility targets for the alliances are ambitiously set at 50%.
In December, the EUF participated in the 1st European Students’ Union Conference for student representatives in European University alliances. The event gathered participants from 38 out of 50 alliances and focused on the student views on numerous topics, such as inclusion, quality assurance, mobility, financing of the alliances and student participation in the governance.
Students point out important obstacles to mobility
During the session on mobility in alliances, students were prompted to identify the primary barriers to learning mobility. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the obstacles raised mirrored those consistently found in various reports and research on the topic. Some of the answers given by the students from the university alliances:
- insufficient funding;
- skyrocketing housing prices and non-accessible student housing;
- lack of full (automatic) recognition of learning periods abroad;
- bureaucracy of the application process;
- language barriers.
They also stressed that financial support needs to be sufficient to cover the basic needs mobile students are incurring, such as travel costs to their host city, accommodation, meals and learning materials. It is clear that current grants fall short of being able to open the possibility for all students to access mobility opportunities.
What is also clear is that increasing mobility in the context of the Alliances is not a fundamentally different endeavour than increasing mobility at large. This highlights the role Alliances could and should play in devising strategies to address these challenges when feasible. However, with the existing grant calculations and their application, the disparities and inequalities among students heading to the same destinations become even more apparent. This undermines the goal of placing all students on an equitable footing in terms of access to mobility programs.
As many alliances now have associate partners from countries that are outside the Erasmus+ programme, especially from the United Kingdom and Switzerland, inevitably another question was raised: will students from those institutions enjoy the benefits of the alliances to the same extent as their peers? Despite the existence of alternative programmes, like Turing, SEMP, and others, persistent concerns revolve around the possibility that political decisions may dictate unequal access for these students, even if they are part of an alliance, potentially limiting their opportunities compared to their peers.
Students were also pointing out that the same services need to be available across different higher education institutions participating in the same alliance. Although the European Student Card (ESC) aims at providing students access to different on- and off- campus services during their mobility, there is insufficient transparency regarding the specific services accessible to ESC holders.
After discussing the current situation, how the grants are calculated and applied, students came to a clear conclusion: grants are neither sufficient, inclusive nor fair. Criticism arises from the inadequacy of grants that fail to consider the diverse student population, the significantly varied combinations of home and host cities, and the absence of substantial support for sustainable travel.
Why does the flagship programme of the EU fail to meet its own objectives?
In the recent (and not so recent) discussions, Commission officials have time and again highlighted that an increase in Erasmus+ funding is unrealistic. The usual answer to this concern is a suggestion that the only way to increase grants is by decreasing the number of beneficiaries. Contrary to this stance, the recently adopted implementation report by the European Parliament calls for a threefold increase in the budget. Civil society organisations also echo this sentiment, calling for a substantial increase of funds allocated to mobility. The current EU budget and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) not only fail to predict a meaningful increase, they also neglect to adequately account for inflation and rising costs of living. The forecast for the next MFF doesn’t look promising either.
Student representatives have underscored another critical concern: the accessibility to information and overall awareness of alliance operations among grassroots students. Alliances are shifting their focus towards research and management of alliance affairs, losing sight of the biggest group involved in the process – the students themselves. Similar issues are surfacing in discussions with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), where staff not directly involved in the running of the alliance, either is unaware or lacks motivation to get more involved. Reasons for that are different – because of the language barrier for some, others are discouraged by the uncertainty on the continuity of funding, others have already enough on their plates.
Alliances are also raising the concern that available funding is largely handled as projects, with relatively short-term tangible deliverables, and not focusing on long-term development of the institutions and alliances. Given that the funding is coming from several different sources, both European and national, each with different objectives, requirements and reporting criteria, it becomes more difficult to manage it effectively.
We already have several existing tools in place that could alleviate at least some of the challenges faced by HEIs, for example in streamlining the administration of student mobilities. There is the possibility to assure that a significant part of the workload could be digitised through proper implementation and utilisation of the tools created for HEIs. However, despite initial intentions for mandatory adoption, the Commission backed out, and the current Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE) no longer mandates the use of tools, such as Erasmus Without Paper. The monitoring guide now only assesses the ability to use these tools, not whether the HEIs are actively using them.
Will the alliances really live up to the expectations to strengthen international cooperation and be the frontrunners in student mobility? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain – achieving these aspirations will be impossible without the necessary resources and support from national authorities and the EU.
Cover photo by Freepik