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Comparative Education
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Making higher education more


European through student mobility?
Revisiting EU initiatives in the context
of the Bologna Process
Vassiliki Papatsiba

University of Oxford , UK
Published online: 20 Aug 2006.

To cite this article: Vassiliki Papatsiba (2006) Making higher education more European through
student mobility? Revisiting EU initiatives in the context of the Bologna Process , Comparative
Education, 42:1, 93-111, DOI: 10.1080/03050060500515785
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03050060500515785

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Comparative Education
Vol. 42, No. 1, February 2006, pp. 93111

Making higher education more


European through student mobility?
Revisiting EU initiatives in the context
of the Bologna Process1
Vassiliki Papatsiba*
University of Oxford, UK
Comparative
10.1080/03050060500515785
CCED_A_151561.sgm
0305-0068
Original
Taylor
102006
42
vassiliki.papatsiba@edstud.ox.ac.uk
VassilikiPapatsiba
00000February
and
&
Article
Francis
(print)/1360-0486
Francis
Education
2006
Ltd
(online)

This paper focuses on the analysis of student mobility in the EU as a means to stimulate convergence
of diverse higher education systems. The argument is based on official texts and other texts of political communication of the European Commission. The following discussion is placed within the
current context of the Bologna process and its aim to introduce system-level changes towards convergence and harmonization that were not achieved through EU schemes of student mobility. Without
disregarding the tension between popularity and limited impact of EU mobility programmes, I argue
that promoting student mobility was not an act of a limited ambition, but on the contrary, an initiative aiming at the foundation of a system of higher education institutions at a European level.

Introduction
Reshaping higher education systems in the light of the construction of a European
Higher Education Area is at the heart of current debates, initiatives and reforms that
proliferate across Europe. However, given that Europe is a region historically divided
by language, religion and nationalism, and each countrys system of higher education
has been developed independently of each other over the centuries, the prospect of
convergence seems complex, the job laborious and the outcome(s) likely to be diverse,
compound and multifaceted. In the current context, changes and reforms associated
with the Bologna Process are moving unevenly, not least because reforms do not take
place in a vacuum, but against the background of diverse inherited systems. Thus,
national systems have a longer or shorter way to go to meet the Bologna model. First
results have shown that where Bologna reforms have been initiated, they have
*Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford, 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford OX2
6PY, UK. Email: vassiliki.papatsiba@edstud.ox.ac.uk
ISSN 0305-0068 (print)/ISSN 1360-0486 (online)/06/01009319
2006 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/03050060500515785

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94 V. Papatsiba
concentrated on matters deemed particularly urgent from a national perspective
(Tauch, 2004).
Initiatives aiming at stimulating convergence among diverse European higher
education systems had already taken place at some European level before the ongoing
Bologna Process, either through EU actions or intergovernmental cooperation
supported also by transnational institutions and supranational policy bodies. As
Musselin (2005) highlights, two underlying hypotheses have guided the analyses of
converging solutions bringing about changes and reforms: first, converging solutions
and orientations are supposed to answer similar or common problems. Second, the
main reason for comparable reforms would be the dissemination of ideas, and
especially new public management rhetoric.
A brief review would suggest that while there does seem to be some convergence of
educational policy at the level of discourse, there appears to be much less convergence
in practice. From the early 1990s, comparative international investigations have highlighted the existence of convergence among governmental orientations on the issue of
higher education governance. However, it has been concluded that the actual
progression toward shared objectives was evolving following different rhythms
(Goedegebuure et al., 1993). Similarly, Green (1999) found evidence of convergence
within Europe and East Asia in policy discourse and broad educational objectives
concerning issues such as lifelong learning and relationships between education and
work, internationalization in higher education; decentralization in regulation and
governance, and increasing use of evaluation and quality control measures. However,
he pointed to the fact that various statistical indicators did not lend support to the
thesis of convergence, at least as far as actual educational structures and processes
were concerned. He argued that the latter appeared to be as distinctive as they were
in the 1980s. In the same line of argument, a comparative study of the English and
Australian higher education systems concerned with the changing nature of accountability found convergence of policy objectives and discourses, but also divergences in
the particular structures and processes employed. Further, the analysis detected a
disjunction between macro-level policy intent and institutional-level reactions and
practices in both countries (Vidovich & Slee, 2001). European comparative research
on educational policies has shown that although a converging process was detectable
in the late 1990s, this was analysed as a trend towards transparency rather than
harmonization (Phillips & Ertl, 2003). Some years later, the scepticism as to the way
common policy orientations are being interpreted nationally and locally and
converted into actual practice does not seem to decrease. For instance, some scholars
contend that during the last two decades, converging higher education policies have
reinforced disparity among European systems instead of leading to more harmonized
systems within Europe (Musselin, 2005).
The Bologna Process: definition and first conceptualizations
Recurrent narratives and argumentations on the evolution (and need for change) of
higher education (HE) systems have abounded in the literature. These are conveying

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Making higher education more European

95

common diagnoses of problems and challenges said to be faced by HE systems. The


latter are being described as confronted with new demands involving contradictory
expectations for equity and access on the one hand, and excellence on the other, and
this, in a context of diversification of funding and decrease of public funding, globalization and knowledge society, quality assurance and accountability, entrepreneurial
approaches, information-communication technologies and virtual universities, new
providers and marketable knowledge, and finally competition for income from foreign
students. Whereas this description has become commonplace, the extent to which
every national HE system and each single institution has been affected equally or will
indistinctly experience the repercussions of such an increasing complex context,
leaves us with some doubts. Notwithstanding, these discourses and trends have
contributed to forge a common perception about the need for change and have
prepared the ground for the launch and progression of the Bologna Process.
The expression Bologna Process (BP) refers to multi-national reforms and
changes currently undertaken by European states, with varying scope and pace, in
order to implement the goal of creating a barrier-free European Higher Education
Area (EHEA) characterized by compatibility and comparability between the higher
education systems of the signatory states (currently 45, since five more countries were
signed up at the Bergen summit of education ministers in Norway in May 2005). The
prospect of the EHEA was introduced by a joint declaration, the so-called Bologna
Declaration, signed by 29 European states in Bologna in 1999, whereby their respective ministers of education and higher education institutions expressed their willingness to opt for structural convergence of their HE systems and committed themselves
to achieving it by 2010. In doing so, the introduction of a BachelorsMasters structure of programmes and degrees was favoured as the way forward.
Despite its nature, evoking cognitive constraint rather than legal obligation, since
it is not a binding agreement, the Bologna Declaration involves a set of voluntary
commitments aiming at (a) strengthening the European cooperation and (b) providing a response to globalization by increasing the attractiveness of European HE
systems. Its foundation was laid in 1998 when four ministers responsible for HE in
France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom signed the so-called Sorbonne
Declaration. The latter advocated a readable and attractive European HE through
progressive harmonization of higher education structures. A common frame of reference for degrees was considered as a prerequisite for this hoped-for convergence,
promising intensification of mobility for students and staff, as well as enhancement of
graduate employability.
The significance and implications of the Bologna Declaration and subsequent
process towards the ultimate, though elusive, goal of EHEA was stressed from the
very start. It was argued that this initiative signals a turning point in the development
of European higher education (Haug, 1999, van der Wende, 2003). Others depicted
it as an educational revolution sweeping Europe (Sedgwick, 2001) or as an unprecedented momentum, especially for a sector as conservative and national in its orientation as European HE (Furlong, 2005). The dramatic tone of these statements is to be
understood by placing them in context: the Bologna Declaration and Process seem to

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96 V. Papatsiba
contradict traditional resistance of the EU Member States (which initiated the
process) to any harmonization policy in education (Hackl, 2001).
Just as a reminder, since it is not a hazardous interpretation but only a historical
fact, the word harmonization was systematically omitted in all European texts relating
to education. Where it appears, and from the very beginning of the European Community policy development as regards cooperation,2 is to refute any vision or expectation
of harmonization of education systems and to confirm that such an intention would
neither be desirable nor achievable (Papatsiba, 2003, p. 41). Given this inheritance,
the BP is said to be one of the most profound changes encountered by European HE.
It can be argued that through this convergence process national governments could
try to stimulate higher education institutions to participate in the processes of
globalization, internationalization and European integration, and also to advocate the
Bologna context to introduce long-standing unwelcome national reforms. The latter
is referred as externalization (Schriewer, 1990; Steiner-Khamsi & Quist, 2000).
As time passes, commentators and scholars attempt to sketch out conceptual
approaches. Some approach the topic of the BP through a constellation of related
(but distinct) concepts such as Europeanization, Internationalization, and Globalization (Nokkala, 2004). The BP is being analysed as a feature of Europeanization,
either because it is perceived as focusing on the European character of HE in
European countries (Enders, 2004; Kwieck, 2004; Teichler, 2004), or because it is
seen as an exemplary case of the new form of flexible European coordination aiming
at European integration (Corbett, 2004) or as a way of engaging universities in the
process of making Europe (i.e. European integration) (Abelson, 2005). However,
Musselin (2005) highlights the lack of European perspective and representation,
projection and belongingness to this European space on the part of those engaged
with the reforms at the institutional level.
When it is posed within the conceptual frame of Internationalization, given that it
is a form of intergovernmental cooperation taking place on a basis of voluntary action
between nation-states, the BP is argued to be an expression of a basic paradigmatic
shift of internationalization policies in HE (Teichler, 2004). According to Teichler,
before this initiative, the structural variety of higher education in Europe was viewed
as a natural outgrowth of a cultural and academic variety. Finally, it has also been
suggested that the BP should relate to globalization (however, the word is absent in
all statements) since it emphasizes the competitive and market-oriented aspects of
higher education (Enders, 2004; Teichler, 2004). Other scholars have interpreted it
as a way of taking control of globalization and responding to its challenges. Seen as
such, the BP can correspond to a systemic, sustained effort at making higher education more responsive to the requirements and challenges related to the globalization
of societies, economy and labour markets (Klvemark & van der Wende, 1997).
Another line of conceptualization tends to mobilize a framework relating to governance issues and more specifically a framework of multi-actor, multilevel governance
(Witte, 2004). This approach builds on a conceptualization of the governance of
European HE systems, seen as involving coordination of multiple levels of government
and multiple actor participation in policy processes (Mayntz, 1998; Enders, 2002;

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97

Meek, 2002). Within this research approach, the changing relationships between the
state, the regional authorities, the supranational level and the universities are likely to
be explored. However, currently and only in speculative terms the question of changes
between HE and its referential community, in other words the community to which
the university is answerable (Neave, 2003), has been raised. For instance, Neave qualifies the Bologna Declaration as a historical step in the changing relationship between
the superordinate and the national communities, seen as forming the new referential
basis for HE policy in Europe (Neave, 2003).
Last, it has been argued that the BP touches upon the conceptualization of university and HE as social institutions. According to Kwiek (2004), what is at issue
through this process is the redefinition of the university as an institution. Similarly,
Nokkala (2004) supports the view that the BP brings about change in the underlying
legitimating idea or rationale of HE, which Gumport (2000, cited in Nokkala, 2004)
has identified as a shift from a social institution to an industry.
The Bologna process and the uncontroversial aim of student mobility
In the context of the Bologna process, increasing student mobility emerges as one of
the ultimate reasons for establishing the EHEA, and at the same time, its expected
outcome. The goal of mobility is said to be both important and unproblematic in
terms of legitimacy and popularity. As stated in the Prague Communiqu,
ministers reaffirmed that efforts to promote mobility must be continued to enable students,
teachers, researchers and administrative staff to benefit from the richness of the European
Higher Education Area including its democratic values, diversity of cultures and languages
and the diversity of the higher education systems. (Prague Communiqu, 2002, p. 1)

Moreover, the results of a survey conducted for the Trends III 2003 report3 showed
that student mobility represented a widely accepted activity in terms of creating the
EHEA. The subsequent report4 highlighted that the promotion of mobility is clearly
the most concrete, easily interpreted and uncontroversial aim of the Bologna process
(Reichert & Tauch, 2003, p. 29). In 2005, Trends IV still reports positive attitudes
and expectations held by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) towards mobility, even
if the picture appears less idyllic than before, since the development of changes and
reforms seems to breed a more realistic projection of the forthcoming European HE
landscape. Fears have been expressed regarding the impact of the introduction of very
differentiated and relatively short programmes (Bachelor and Master programmes,
compared to the previous long one-cycle programmes) on horizontal mobility (i.e.,
within a given cycle-programme). Concerning vertical mobility (i.e. between cycles),
it seems as if the prospect of convergence conveys anxiety related to the attraction of
the best students and subsequent brain-drain (Reichert & Tauch, 2005).
However, independently of various scenarios and beyond this apparent widespread
acceptance of further promotion of student mobility (van der Wende, 2001), it is
important to try to tackle the underlying legitimating ideas or rationales that
accompanied the institutionalization of student mobility by political actors since these
are likely to mark future promotion of mobility.

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98 V. Papatsiba
If this is to happen, mobility cannot only be seen as an end in itself (what the current
absence of debate and problematization of the phenomenon seems to signal), but
even if it was to be considered as such, the reasons why mobility is the ultimate goal,
its specific pedagogical nature and various individual and collective benefits should
be debated. At present it seems, however, as if the BP reproduces the pattern of the
EU initiated cooperation which has taken on a pragmatic and organizational character
by targeting structure before content. Since the late 1970s, this latter approach was
thought to pave the way for a more durable foundation for meaningful cooperation
in future (Smith, 1980, p. 78), even if it was recognized that this approach was less
grandiose than the vaguely felt desire to unify Europe (Smith, 1980, p. 78). Almost
thirty years later, the method remains pragmatic but the debate about meanings and
goals has not necessarily increased. Thus, it is important to step back and to question
the goals and the political and academic projects at work behind the idea of promoting
and intensifying student mobility, not least because an extraordinary amount of
resources in all forms has been and will be devoted to this goal.
The EU stimulates student mobility
Since the 1980s, student mobility in Europe has been an activity of noticeable political
promotion. The launch of the ERASMUS programme in 1987 points to a significant
political interest and activity in this area. Scholars and analysts have suggested that
even from the 1970s onwards the EU became the most active political actor in Europe
in stimulating student mobility and reinforcing recognition of studies abroad within
Europe (Smith, 1996; Waechter et al., 1999; de Wit, 2002). The ERASMUS
programme represents the most popular scheme for student mobility at the European
level. In addition, it has been considered as the flagship of all the educational
programmes administered by the EU (Teichler, 2001). Furthermore, Altbach and
Teichler (2001) reported claims made by experts that SOCRATES/ERASMUS has
been the most successful single component of EU policy. As Corbett (2002) highlights, this success reflects the consensus upon which the EU initiative was built:
although Ministers were reluctant to endorse such an action, it received a strong
support from the academic community, via university associations. Europe-minded
academic bodies had long thought it important to improve academic mobility through
European Community incentives. It is worth mentioning here the Joint Studies
Programmes as a pilot action aiming at cooperation and mobility and the experience
gained through it (Smith, 1979; Pery, 1983). This initiative, often considered as the
ancestor of subsequent mobility programmes, suffered from various administrative
and financial difficulties, and not least the issue of languages. Despite this, the pilot
action made the idea for community support not only acceptable but also popular.
Political perceptions and rationales of ERASMUS mobility
The rationales underlying ERASMUS student mobility can be described under two
main headings (Papatsiba, 2005):

Making higher education more European

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An economic and professional rationale of student mobility. It is seen as a means


to promote the European labour market. It would predispose individuals to cross
borders more easily during their professional lives;
A civic rationale of student mobility in the light of creating European citizens.
Student mobility would forge European consciousness and would be a means to
reach international understanding.

All these discourses convey political visions concerning the individual competences
that the period of mobility is supposed to develop, since mobility is seen as an
instrument for personal development useful to the economy and to society. We can
mention the acquisition of international competences, such as a good command of
languages, a certain level of intercultural competence, as well as cross-cutting
personal competences such as autonomy, initiative, resilience, self-confidence, and
so on. From the European decision-makers perspective, mobility represents a form
of secondary socialization that relies on individuals. Being mobile implies experiences of changing environments, even ones sense of belonging, and increases the
possibilities of benefiting from such variety. Mobility involves encounters and
confrontation with differences, requiring a broad range of individual adaptive
responses, and also encouraging their renewal. Hence, mobility would maintain
individuals in a state of awakening akin to the acquisition of new competences and
new knowledge.
The EC White Paper on the learning society (European Commission, 1995) insists
on the importance of developing all forms of incentives to learn. The advent of the
learning society certainly depends on the acquisition of new knowledge, but above
all on that precious capacity to learn how to learn. Indeed,
support for mobility also plays a part in encouraging the enhancement of knowledge.
Geographical mobility broadens the individuals horizon, stimulates intellectual agility and
raises the general level of learning. It can only reinforce the ability to learn, which is so
necessary to develop. (European Commission, 1995, p. 34)

Clearly these discourses focus on the individual outcomes of mobility but as we will
see later, the collective dimension of individual mobility, either at the level of HEIs,
or at the more general socio-economic level, has also been operating.

An economic and professional rationale of student mobility


A human resource training and predictor of future mobility
To start with, student mobility serves, in the first instance, the purpose of economic
cooperation within the EU, since the ERASMUS programme aims at the training of
European-minded professionals. Study of the objectives accompanying the creation
of this programme5 enables us to raise some important issues for discussion. At the
beginning the positions defended by its initiators underlined the need to meet the
economic and technological challenges launched by other nations and continents

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100 V. Papatsiba
through education and training. These global competitors obviously outclass the
capacities of each European nation taken separately.
In this context, three of the five objectives of the programme6 envisaged student
mobility as human resource training to constitute a pool of graduates with direct
experience of intra-Community cooperation as a means of providing a broader basis
for intensified economic and social cooperation in the Community (Dcision du
Conseil du 15 juin 1987, 87/327/CEE, p. 00210022).7 Although this quotation
corresponds to the fifth and last objective of ERASMUS when it was launched, it
recalls and clarifies the first one. The latter avows the need for the Community to
produce personnel having first hand experience of the economic and social life in
another Member State (Dcision du Conseil du 15 juin 1987, 87/327/CEE,
p. 00210022). The term personnel expresses the adopted economic and professional prospect. The third objective refers to the role that universities can play in the
development of the Communitys intellectual potential in order to ensure the
competitiveness of the Community on the world market (Dcision du Conseil du
15 juin 1987, 87/327/CEE, p. 00210022). The two other objectives evoke the
development of cooperation between the European universities and the reinforcement of relations between citizens of the various Member States with a view to
consolidating the concept of a Peoples Europe. Generally, it can be claimed that
these initial aims remain valid throughout time, since the ERASMUS programme
has followed a continuous and stable development and its integration under the
larger educational programme SOCRATES did not alter the initial objectives
(Maiworm, 2001; Teichler, 2001).
It was assumed that future generations would be better prepared to take responsibilities and to work in multicultural contexts if they had experienced various
professional cultures at an earlier stage in their careers. By participating in student
mobility schemes, future professionals can create networks that exceed national
frameworks. Mobility thus becomes, from the EC perspective, as much a training
path as a predictor for a professional career within the Single Market (Commission
des Communauts europennes, 1991, p. 29).
More generally, the fact that student mobility was institutionally organized and
supported by grants reflects an investment in European HE, closely connected
with the rise of national standards and competitiveness in view of the Single Market
requirements. Therefore, failing to invest in the present and future human
resource, in its competence, its capacity of adaptability and enterprise, Europe will
face the decline of its capacity of innovation, its competitiveness, its faculty to create
richness and prosperity, the European Commission (EC) asserts (Commission des
Communauts europennes, 1988, p. 2). Starting from economic cooperation and
thanks to a spill-over process, more areas of national sovereignty would enter into a
cooperation process until common policies were adopted (Holland, 1991).
However, this process of European integration cannot operate in a vacuum, but
would depend on the existence of the people having capacities to operate beyond
the national and cultural borders (Commission des Communauts europennes,
1991, p. 1).

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101

Political and civic rationale of student mobility

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Creating European citizens


Despite the dominant utilitarian approach, the social and cultural aspects of student
mobility were not neglected. These were acknowledged in the discourses which introduced the idea of a Europe of knowledge that was closely related to the notion of a
Peoples Europe.8 Since 1988, the development of the European Dimension9 in
education in order to reinforce European identity/citizenship, to increase awareness
of common sociopolitical issues and to enhance knowledge of the historical and
cultural aspects of Europe has become a leitmotiv of the EU. The educational
community welcomed this approach that was closer to educational ideals than being
a purely economic rationale.
The White Paper on the learning society (European Commission, 1995) acknowledged that education and training will increasingly become the main vehicle for selfawareness, belonging, advancement and self-fulfilment (p. 2) and stressed that
education lays the foundation of awareness and European citizenship (p. 10).
However, these statements do not necessarily reflect the EU view of HE. Indeed,
many tensions and disagreements between the European decision-makers and the
university actors about HEs role and future were revealed. The EC gave an account
of these reactions and positions:
The importance given in the Memorandum to the priorities of an economic and technological nature and to human resource considered as a factor of production, caused much
criticism, in spite of the multiple references which appear in this text about the cultural,
human and social issues []. Without intending to neglect the technological and
economic urgencies, these answers, emanating especially from the academic and
professional environments, suggested to reverse the priorities, and therefore to dovetail
them with the more general cultural purposes. (Commission europenne, 1993, p. 13)

Within the political and civic rationale, the EC implied that with this increasing
freedom of movement should come a growing European consciousness instilled
through greater awareness of others as a result of exposure to new cultures and
societies (European Commission, 1996, p. 1). The latent idea is that of the training
of new future elites who advocate the economic and political project of the EU.
Having acquired scientific and cultural competences, they would accelerate
European integration and contribute to the creation of a Europe that is strong and
open to the world.
Some reflections on the margins of the action
For those acquainted with the literature on the topic of European student mobility, it
is an open secret that the main bulk of what has been written is relatively uninspiring.
It seems as if the pragmatic political stance and the operationalization of cooperation
through concrete steps have inhibited conceptual analysis and have prevented it from
being more elaborate and ambitious. However, some scholars have stressed the
prevalence of a professional and economic vision of ERASMUS student mobility.

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102 V. Papatsiba
Wielemans contends that the programme reflects the market mechanisms and the
increasing spirit of utilitarianism. He concluded on the dissonance that creates the
parallel reading of the programme and the humanistic ideas of the historical figure of
Erasmus: The EC ERASMUS programme is discordant with the content as well as
with the humanistic and cultural mission implied by using the portrait of Erasmus
(Wielemans, 1991, p. 177). According to this line of argument, ERASMUS would
reflect an approach towards higher education that various analyses have stressed.
These have supported the idea that changes in HE are shaped by pressures coming
from the market and its interests rather than by political planning (Neave, 1988).
These analyses seem to contradict the enthusiastic rhetoric on mobility. However,
a closer look at EC publications shows that the depth of the civic and cultural effects
of ERASMUS are taking second place in the formulation and pursuit of policies on
student mobility: It is a fortunate event that the actions intended to support the training of the graduates for mobility and for a successful career within the single market,
also contribute to the process of cultural transmission and development of the
European identity (Commission des Communauts europennes, 1991, p. 14). In
other words, they are welcomed but are not the heart of the matter. Incidentally, we
can refer to a previous study (Papatsiba, 2003) that showed mixed individual
outcomes in terms of the cultural and civic benefits of an ERASMUS mobility period.
Research on the history of European Community policy development in HE in
terms of the policy process has shown that emphasizing the economic rationale and
implications of ERASMUS was an initial tactic to ensure the acceptance of the
programme by the Commissioners (Corbett, 2003). However, we may legitimately
question whether this possibly sine qua non condition for the programme to emerge
has dominated the other rationales and has even definitely shaped the programme.
Following the path of ERASMUS mobility?
For this second part of the paper, I shall focus on student mobility and its potential
contribution to make HEIs more European, a goal in line with the current Bologna
Process. Our working hypothesis will be to consider the present consensus for promoting student mobility as a continuation path initiated by the EU, and its action in favour
of student mobility for almost two decades. Having claimed this continuation path
between the EU efforts in promoting mobility and the recent view of mobility as the
most unproblematic issue, we acknowledge the methodological difficulties in
disentangling the EU impact on national policies from other supranational or national
influences. In addition, making this point should not prevent us from highlighting the
weakness of empirically-based knowledge on the impact of the EU action (in general,
as in the field of higher education in particular), either because studies are very recent
or still on-going (Huisman, 2004), or because the actual consequences have not been
investigated (Kassim & Menon, 1996, quoted in Huisman, 2004).
Although the nature and the quality of the evidence are still debated, we can
consider the apparent consensus about student mobility as an expression of a change,
at least, at the level of collective representations relating to the hoped-for benefits of

Making higher education more European

103

studying and living abroad (Papatsiba, 2003). Other authors depicted it as a breakthrough in the public awareness of the value and relevance of temporary study in
another country (Maiworm & Teichler, 1996), and related it to awareness of the
importance of Internationalization (Huisman, 2004; Huisman & van der Wende,
2004). In all cases, ERASMUS constitutes an important device in the field of
European student mobility and the rationales that have been woven into this initiative
are likely to mark the future promotion of mobility.

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ERASMUS and the difficult route to systemic change


Student mobility has been seen from a double perspective: as a means of producing
certain intellectual and attitudinal effects on individuals and, from a political standpoint, especially that of the EC, as a means of inducing institutional change at the
level of HE institutions (Baumgratz-Gangl, 1996). It was expected that student
mobility within the European Union would play a key role in developing the
European Dimension of higher education. Although the idea of a Community action
aiming at reinforcing the European Dimension in education goes back at least to the
Janne report (Janne, 1973) of the early 1970s, this objective was especially highlighted
after 1995, especially with the launch of the SOCRATES programme.
But the realization of this far-reaching goal (of a European Dimension in education) would firstly require that Europeans become aware of the diversity of their
(higher) education systems, of their richness but also differences and divergence.
After this initial phase of exchange of experience and acquisition of a mutual
knowledge, the cooperation between HEIs would pass to the next stage. The implied
working hypothesis here was that HE institutions would be confronted with the
subsequent needs of mobile students, and would progressively bring into line their
teaching objectives and structures with an idea of European standards (since the
European standard does not already exist somewhere but has to be established).
Some years later, van der Wende (2001) was observing that a low level of convergence
at the institutional and pedagogical level was attributed to the impact of the
SOCRATES/ERASMUS programme. Therefore differences persisted and systemic
convergence was prevented.
A popular programme with a limited impact: some potential explanations
Three reasons can provide potential explanations about this somewhat limited impact
of ERASMUS. The first points to the fact that the apparent consensus about student
mobility seems to cover a more complex situation. Without considering research
results on the individual outcomes of an ERASMUS experience for students, the
promotion of student mobility does not operate on the basis of single rationales and
shared expectations among the various actors concerned by HE issues (Papatsiba,
2003, 2005). Indeed, there are few universally accepted goals for international HE
and exchanges and the expectations of academics, business leaders, professional
groups or policy bodies may be very different (Altbach & Teichler, 2001). Diverse

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104 V. Papatsiba
goals and rationales not only characterize student exchanges: exchanges of secondary
school pupils also reproduce this pattern. According to Bernard, the nature of pupils
exchanges has a paradoxical aspect: although it provides satisfaction and a certain
degree of success, it relies on a chain of constant misunderstandings between the
involved parts (e.g. students, teachers, parents, institution), each of them pursuing
diverse objectives and having different expectations (Bernard, 1996). Hence, sharing
the same view, approach and aims is not a conditio sine qua non for an initiative to be
successful to some extent; students satisfaction supports that, but, as we will see
shortly, the question is at the expenses of what or whom and at what cost.
The second reason concerns the quantitative achievements of the programme. It
has never reached the target of 10% of mobile students. As an official text of the
European Parliament states: the Commission survey shows that only 1% of students
took part in ERAMUS mobility schemes in the year in question and that a great deal
remains to be done to reach the programmes stated objective of a participation rate
of 10%.10 For those familiar with the field of ERAMUS mobility, triumphal
discourses and overestimated statistics are not unusual. Involved in major evaluations
of ERASMUS, Maiworm (2001) takes stock of the student participation in the
ERASMUS programme and notes that
many publications on ERASMUS erroneously quote the substantially higher figures of
estimated number of mobile students. [] However, the actual number of students going
abroad with ERASMUS support is substantially lower. The take-up rate (proportion of
estimated students who actually went abroad) declined over the years to less than 50%.
(p. 464)

Therefore the critical mass of students that would eventually have motivated institutional and pedagogical change has not been attained up to the present, even though
the popularity of the programme is increasing. Analysts attribute this to Member
States limited financial support to student mobility and their subsequent shortage of
willingness to provide incentives in order for the programme to achieve its ambitious
objectives (Bousquet, 1998; Corbett, 2002).
The third plausible explanation regarding the weak impact of the ERASMUS
programme on systemic change has to do with the level of actionin other words,
with the fact that mobility concerns first of all individual students, even if behind
those the target was the academics, the departments and finally the institutions, and
the subsequent aim was to improve the quality of HE and to develop its European
Dimension. The study of West and the ADMIT project team (2002) on perceptions
and devices for student mobility in five countries (Germany, Greece, France, Sweden
and the United Kingdom) revealed the strong disparity in terms of academics
involvement and active institutional support for student mobility. Based on the evaluation of the SOCRATES programme in 2000, Maiworm (2001) reported that 40%
of those responsible for SOCRATES at the central level of the institutions perceived
a lack of interest on the part of academics. In this context, where academics involvement in student mobility is not seen as a gratifying activity in terms of career progression, and where institutions are expected actively to contribute to the reinforcement
of national or regional competitiveness while their educational missions are being

Making higher education more European

105

challenged by expectations to foster both excellence and democracy, it can also be


added that students satisfaction, as shown by various evaluations of the ERASMUS
programme (Maiworm et al. 1993; Teichler & Maiworm, 1997; Rosselle & Lentiez,
1999; Teichler et al., 2001), and the emphasis on the personal dimension of mobility,
alongside the small number of mobile students, has provided the ideal excuse for
limited system-level change.

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Aiming at the foundation of a system of higher education?


It has been argued that the shortfall in systemic level changes cannot be analysed as
a failure because student mobility was not devised to impact on the HE systems and
to affect their structure (Huisman, 2004). In the same line of argument, it was
suggested that due to the EUs limited competencies in education, the European
Commission was not in a position to initiate a process aiming at system-level reforms
(van der Wende, 2001). Without disregarding the soundness of the legalistic argument based on the subsidiarity principle, it is worth mentioning that in the political
arena legal competence does not always reflect the actual interest in certain activities.
In other words and in terms of agenda setting in policy-making (Corbett, 2004) there
is not always a match between the domain (i.e. the legal competence of the EC in
education), the issue (i.e. is mobility high in the priority list?) and the venue (which
institution will deal with or be in charge of it). Clearly, we can contend that the issue
was there and then arrangements had to be made to accommodate the two other
conditions in order for EU support for mobility to emerge. Research on the history of
EC policy development in HE highlights the fact that HE and education at large were
an issue of intense interest to European Community decision-makers from Day 1 of
the Communitys history (Corbett, 2003, p. 385). Therefore, I would argue that
promoting student mobility was not an act of a limited ambition (even though it was
a successfully exploited and advanced or accepted initiative), but on the contrary, an
initiative aiming at the foundation of a system of higher education institutions at a
European level.
In order to develop this argument, T. F. Greens (1980) definition of what constitutes an educational system seems relevant. Green suggested that in order to understand the problems encountered in reforming an educational system, one must attend
to its general character as a system apart from its educational purposes. He identified
the three following primary elements: (a) schools; (b) a medium of exchange
between schools; and (c) sequence (Green, 1980). Let us discuss here the second
primary element of the educational system. The medium of exchange between
schools points to the fact that there is a system of credits and units that allows the
student to move from one school to another without having to begin over again or to
be randomly placed. Indeed because we have a system, individuals can move from
one school to another and pick up at the same level (Covaleskie, 1994). As to the
ERASMUS mobility scheme, it has been aimed at promoting integrated study
abroad, with periods of study abroad recognized as forming part of a course. EU
mobility grants through ERASMUS, accompanied by the credit system known as

106 V. Papatsiba

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ECTS, has striven to facilitate students free movement from one establishment to
another. As such, this type of student mobility relates to the second primary element
of what constitutes a system according to Greens (1980) definition. In the light of
this discussion, EU action on higher education can be interpreted as an intervention
aimed at impact at the system level. Given the historical and political context,
promoting mobility was a possible action at the level of one out of the three components of the HE system, following Greens definition. Thus, from a retrospective
point of view, student mobility could definitely be seen as an initiative aspiring to
establish a primary foundation for a European higher education system. Yet the
extent to which this initiative has been successful in introducing this type of change
does not alter possible aims, hopes and policy aspirations.
Notes
1. This article draws in parts on a paper presented at the Third Conference on Knowledge and
Politics, University of Bergen, 1820 May 2005.
2. See two reports endeavouring to lay the foundations for a European Community action regarding education. The first report (Janne, 1973), prepared by a working group comprising specialists in education and chaired by Henri Janne (former minister for Education of Belgium,
appointed by the European Commission in July 1972) was submitted in February 1973. Its
proposals evoke the promotion of European Dimension in education, the equivalence of
secondary studies degrees, the development of an education throughout life and, finally, the
language teaching. In March 1974, the second report (Commission des Communauts
europennes, 1982), under the mandate of Ralf Dahrendorf, the first Commissioner in charge
of research, sciences and education, introduced the draft of an action plan titled Education in
the European Community. In the promulgation of the declarations of 1971, this report
presented the development of a strategy of cooperation in the field of education as the way
forward and rejected any aim of harmonization.
3. A report of trends in European higher education informed each of the three Conferences of
European Ministers of Education. The first, titled Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education (Trends I), was prepared by Haug and Kirstein (1999) for the 1999 meeting in Bologna that
launched the process. Trends II Towards the European Higher Education Area (Haug & Tauch,
2001) was presented in Prague in 2001. The third EUA report Trends III: Progress Towards the
European Higher Education Area (Reichert & Tauch, 2003), was prepared for the Berlin Summit
2003. Trends IV: European Universities Implementing Bologna (Reichert & Tauch, 2005) is the
most recent report prepared for the Bergen Summit 2005.
4. For the survey conducted for the Trends III (Reichert & Tauch, 2003) report, 1800 questionnaires were sent, with a 45% response rate.
5. Dcision du Conseil du 15 juin 1987 (87/327/CEE) portant adoption du programme daction
communautaire en matire de mobilit des tudiants (ERASMUS), JOCE, n L 166 du 25/
06/1987, [Council Decision of 15 June 1987 adopting the European Community Action
Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS)] pp. 00200024.
6. Dcision du Conseil du 15 juin 1987 (87/327/CEE) portant adoption du programme daction
communautaire en matire de mobilit des tudiants (ERASMUS), JOCE, n L 166 du 25/
06/1987, [Council Decision of 15 June 1987 adopting the European Community Action
Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS)] pp. 00200024.
7. Unless the reference is mentioned in English, the sentence in quotes has been taken from the
French versions of the EC publications and does not necessarily correspond to the official texts
in English.

Making higher education more European

107

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8. Conclusions du Conseil et des ministres de lEducation, runis au sein du Conseil du 6 octobre


1989 sur la coopration et la politique en matire dducation dans la perspective de 1993,
JOCE, n C 277/5 du 31/10/89 [Conclusions of the Council and the ministers for Education
meeting within the Council of 6 October 1989 on cooperation and Community policy in the
field of education in the run-up to 1993].
9. Rsolution du Conseil et des ministres de lducation runis au sein du Conseil sur la
dimension europenne dans lducation, du 24 mai 1988, JOCE, n C 177 du 06/07/1988
[Resolution of the Council and the Ministers of Education meeting within the Council on the
European Dimension in education of 24 May 1988].
10. Rsolution du Parlement europen sur le rapport de la Commission Enqute sur la situation
socio-conomique des tudiants ERASMUS, (Procs Verbal du 06/09/2000, bas sur le document
A5-0199/2000) [Resolution of the European Parliament on the Commission report titled
Survey into the socio-economic background of ERASMUS students] [our translation].

Notes on contributor
Vassiliki Papatsiba, Senior Research Fellow, holds an EU Marie-Curie (IntraEuropean) Research Fellowship at the Department of Educational Studies,
University of Oxford, UK. She is the author of the book Des tudiants europens.
Erasmus et laventure de laltrit [European students. ERASMUS and the adventure of change] (Bern, Peter Lang), 2003.

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