As many students are aware, Erasmus+ student mobility programs have been instrumental in allowing students to have access to European countries and enjoy both academic mobility as well as cultural mobility. Thousands of students have benefited from Erasmus+ mobility programs and it was a hallmark of global student mobility. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has created a situation where borders are closed in Europe and issues such as travel and visa restrictions as well as medical anxiety will prevent many students from undertaking a student mobility or student exchange in this academic year.
For the autumn semester and into 2021, virtual mobility – in this context, students and staff who learn and teach for a limited time at another institution, without being physically present – might be the only reliable option for some institutions in the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.
In fact, some institutions have already decided to put physical student mobility on hold for the next semester, and even beyond.
What does that mean for Erasmus+? The European Commission has now confirmed through the National Agencies that virtual mobility, preferably in blended settings, can take place under the Erasmus+ mobility actions in the autumn of 2020.
As the European University Association understands it, physical mobility remains the goal of the programme, but if it is not feasible, blended or entirely virtual mobility will be eligible. As usual, the details of implementation are to be decided by the respective National Agency.
However, there is a drawback: While the institutions would receive funding for virtual mobility, students would only receive a grant for the period of time they are physically mobile. This means that if the full Erasmus+ period is spent virtually (intentionally or due to circumstances), the student would not receive any grant funding.
This is regrettable for several reasons.
First, students who participate in mobility, even if it is virtual, may not continue to receive some of the benefits they enjoy at their home institutions and systems. These include grants, access to student dorms and canteens and reduced transportation costs.
Second, regarding blended mobility, shorter physical stays abroad might also be relatively more costly.
And this raises the question of how attractive this will be to students and how equitable it will be. Given all the uncertainties and challenges, students, and in particular those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, might think twice, and if possible, defer to the next semester or year. Hence, it would be important to ensure that no detriment results from the fact that mobility is virtual and blended.
Offering an Erasmus+ grant for periods of virtual mobility, even a reduced one, would help to further pilot and promote virtual mobility, both in higher education and beyond the higher education community. And this might be necessary, given the limited experience in and current low standing of virtual mobility in higher education internationalisation approaches.
Embedding virtual mobility
The European Commission started to promote virtual mobility in 2014-15 – then only for youth exchange. The European Universities Initiative is expected to contribute to its spread. How else will the EU reach its goal of 50% mobility among the student population? But the initiative is just starting and requires ambitious funding under the Erasmus+ programme in the next seven-year EU budget, which is currently under negotiation.
Furthermore, the upcoming Bologna Process Communiqué 2020 is expected to highlight the missed 2020 mobility benchmark, which aimed at 20% of students having a mobility experience. This is another chance to move virtual mobility forward.
In addition, the European Commission has underlined relations with the Western Balkans, the European Neighbourhood and Africa in the long-term EU budget negotiations. Given that unrestricted physical mobility, and more importantly full attendance on campus, might not be back any time soon, this could be a key moment to do some pioneering work.
Not all universities are prepared to offer virtual mobility on a large scale. To reverse this, Erasmus+ must be put in a position to enable the exchange of good practice and peer-learning among higher education institutions hosting virtual students in the coming months. This would certainly be an investment in the future, also in terms of intra-European exchanges.
An enhancement, not a replacement
To be entirely clear: This is not about replacing physical mobility in the long-term. The European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education recently issued a statement that made the importance of physical mobility very evident, stressing why it can and should not be replaced.
Here is an occasion to limit the negative impact of the crisis, but also to establish an additional format and opportunity for international mobility.
In the medium to long term, it would also contribute to a greener, more digital Erasmus+, which is fully in line with the new priorities of the programme, and support the related transformation goals of the next EU seven-year budget.
In this regard, 2020 could become the year to advance virtual mobility, both in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and in view of the new EU long-term budget.
Of course, the final decision lays with the students as to if they feel this will give them a similar experience as an actual mobility.