Broadening underrepresented student group participation in international mobility
Op-ed by Baiba Pētersone, Director of International Department, Rīga Stradiņš University, and participant in the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK, from 24–27 November 2019
A recent report on diversity and inclusion suggested that the diversity of modern societies must also be reflected in the composition of the student body at universities.
Although access to higher education for different groups of students is an important issue that needs to be addressed, the next step — successful integration into various aspects of university life — is also necessary to ensure a comprehensive learning experience, graduation and a professional career for all groups of students.
One such important aspect of a university life is international experience that not only enhances knowledge in students’ chosen field of study, but also strengthens their understanding of global issues — the environment, health, human rights, cultural and religious differences, etc. This understanding develops students’ global competencies and results in a better ability to engage in global processes.
International mobility also enhances career prospects. Employers tend to prefer job seekers with an international experience. Graduates with such experience find jobs faster and have greater long-term prospects: attainment of a management position, higher salary and more responsibility.
This allows a conclusion that international mobility is an important aspect of university life which should include different groups of students. Universities, in collaboration with other higher education actors, should help underrepresented students acquire international experience.
Although the number of students who enjoy the benefits of international mobility continues to increase, there are still many students who face different obstacles — informational, financial, physical, and personal to name just a few.
For example, a research-based position paper concludes that insufficient funding is the leading obstacle to international mobility, followed by personal reasons. Students with disabilities are also underrepresented having only a small share of 0.17% out of the overall mobilities within Erasmus+.
There is much that needs to be done to increase the participation of underrepresented student groups in international mobility. Below is a list of some activities that universities can employ to facilitate broader participation of these groups in international mobility.
Early exposure to opportunities for international mobility
Information about higher education, accompanied by individual counselling, during secondary education enhances students’ prospects of entering and succeeding in higher education later. In a similar manner, a timely understanding about the benefits of international experience may result in enhanced mobility of underrepresented student groups.
Comprehensive information about international opportunities
When enrolled in higher education, students should receive information about international opportunities that is not limited to a list of mobility programmes, but also addresses aspects such as benefits of mobility, student services and access at partner institutions, housing options, medical assistance and mental health.
Support to students throughout the mobility cycle
Providing individual counselling about opportunities for international mobility may encourage some students from underrepresented groups to seek international experience. This counselling may be accompanied by career advice that highlights the benefits of international mobility in career development. Testimonies from other students with similar backgrounds who have successfully completed mobilities may also be a motivational factor.
Before the mobility period, students’ preparedness can be strengthened through foreign language and culture training. They should also be assisted with study curriculum comparisons at home and host institutions, as well as a guarantee that their mobility periods will be academically recognised upon their return.
During the mobility, it may be helpful to provide students with a mentor who is a fellow student at the host institution. Students should also have direct access to dedicated staff at the home and host institutions to discuss matters related to their academic performance and mobility.
Adequate funding for mobility
Insufficient funding remains the leading obstacle to international mobility. Therefore, universities and other higher education decision-makers should try to create adequate financial instruments to support it. According to the European Students’ Union, even Erasmus+ that provides a great number of European and partner country students with opportunities for mobility does not always entirely cover costs that students encounter, e.g., transportation, sign language translators, medical expenses, counselling and other services. More attention should be dedicated to the establishment of special grants and stipends for underrepresented student groups.
Alternative forms of mobility
Mobilities traditionally last one semester or academic year, a period of time that some students (e.g., mature and working students) cannot afford to be away from their home country. Therefore, some other forms of mobility may be a good alternative. For example, short-term mobilities that last only a few weeks or “internationalisation at home” that integrates international components into the home institution’s study curriculum and life.
There has also been a shift towards virtual mobility. Although it exposes students to different experiences, it is not identical to physical mobility in a new social and cultural setting. A better solution could be blended mobility that takes advantage of both types of mobility.
 Claeys-Kulik, A.-L., & Jørgensen, T. (2018). Universities‘ strategies and approaches towards diversity, equity and inclusion: Examples from across Europe. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association.
 Egron-Polak, E., & Hudson, R. (2014). Internationalization of higher education: Growing expectations, Fundamental values. Paris, France: International Association of Universities.
 The European Commission. (2014). The Erasmus impact study. Luxembourg: Publications Office of The European Union.
 European Students’ Union, & Erasmus Student Network. (2019). Towards a well-funded Erasmus+ programme for the years to come: Joint position paper on the future of ERASMUS+. Retrieved from https://www.esu-online.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/102019_ESU_ESN_JointPositionPaper_Erasmus.pdf.
 Inclusive Mobility Alliance. (2019). Recommendations on making the Erasmus programme 2021–2027 more inclusive. Retrieved from https://mapped.eu/sites/default/files/ima/IMA%20recommendations%20-%20Final%20version.pdf.
 Herbaut, E, & Geven, K. (2019) What works to reduce inequalities in higher education? A systematic review of the (quasi-)experimental literature on outreach and financial aid. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.
 Berger, S. (2019, November). A student perspective of inclusive mobility: Quo vadis Erasmus+ 2021–2017? Presentation at the Fourth Higher Education Internationalisation Conference “Inclusive Internationalisation” of Rīga Stradiņš University, Latvia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely by the author(s) and do not represent that of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).