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Seize the moment: Transnational European collaboration

Europe is at a crucial moment in terms of ‘buy-in’ to support international education collaboration. This will not come again soon.

Europe needs to seize the momentum for educational change with a new holistic approach to transnational collaboration that goes beyond physical mobility and focuses on internationalising the curriculum, says a new report from the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

Professor Jo Angouri, director for education and internationalisation at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, produced the report with input from: Karin Amos from University of Tübingen, Germany; Berit Eika from Aarhus University, Denmark; Aune Valk from the University of Tartu, Estonia; Ivana Didak and Jan Palmowski from the Guild.

Titled, ‘Transnational collaboration and mobility in higher education’, the new insight paper from the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities and Bern Open Publishing on 22 June 2023, argues that to achieve scalability in transnational educational collaboration, “a conceptual shift to mobility is needed” that moves on from simple targets, such as 20% of European students physically studying or training abroad for three months or more by 2020, a goal set in 2011 by the 48 member states of the European Higher Education Area in 2011 – but not achieved by many countries.

Instead of concentrating on ‘singular’ individual experience, the authors want to embed the opportunity for international learning, short and longer term, in the curricular and co-curricular offering of an institution.

The paper says the sector needs “a nuanced and diverse set of learning activities involving multiple mobilities and corresponding policy tools”, and that current priorities, such as the European degree, should build on existing good practices and have “a clear and added value for institutions and academics to secure the sector’s buy-in”.

Academics need to be incentivised, it says, and their commitment and openness to internationalisation needs to be recognised while universities need to be supported to invest in sustainable pedagogic innovation by national governments and the European Commission.

Teaching could learn from the experience of international research collaboration, which in Europe is supported by framework programmes, such as Horizon Europe, and where collaborative research is incentivised, recognised and funded.

Transnational masters simpler than bachelors

The Guild paper features a number of case studies from around Europe to highlight some of the opportunities and challenges facing universities and students embarking on transnational education.

The paper concludes that masters level collaboration is a comparatively simpler process and less resource intensive than joint degrees and mobility for undergraduates because national regulation is significantly greater at the bachelor’s level.

The University of Warwick, although a member of the EUTOPIA European university alliance, has faced the additional challenges of Brexit now that the UK has left the European Union.

However, despite the lack of scholarships and legislative obstacles, it has been offering double masters degrees with European partners through its department of politics and international studies (PAIS).

It is now drawing on long-term bilateral partnerships, as well as newer developments such as its membership of EUTOPIA, to provide more opportunities to study abroad and develop research collaboration and provide a pathway for students to transition from masters to PhD.

Warwick hopes to move its joint programmes to one single award by all participating institutions, with a shared curriculum, “which meets the requirements of all participating institutions, based on jointly defined programme-level learning outcomes, joint selection and joint decision-taking”, says the report.

Ghent University in Belgium has 15 joint programmes, including the MSc in Fire Safety Engineering, an established Erasmus Mundus programme which offers structured student mobility, takes joint decisiomns on the programme design, student selection and degree awarding, and delivers a joint degree as one single certificate.

It cites the advantages and opportunities, including capacity building and critical mass which are especially important for academic staff in niche areas who can work with colleagues in larger teams and share resources which benefit the students.

Offering one programme which crosses national borders also lets students and staff experience diverse teaching cultures and enhancing employability and PhD prospects for students in the field, says the report.

Triple-badged women’s and gender studies programmes

Another of the case studies cited is the triple-badged GEMMA programme in women’s and gender studies.

Students can enrol in one of three universities: University of Bologna in Italy; University of Granada in Spain; and University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

The programme is the first Erasmus Mundus Joint Master in Women’s and Gender Studies in Europe and is taught by a consortium formed by seven European universities and uses an extensive network of associate partners, including 16 associate academic partners from North, Central and South America and Europe, and 29 ‘industrial partners’ from different areas, including women’s studies research and promotion institutions and feminist activist organisations and NGOs.

“One of GEMMA’s main missions is to train much needed gender experts who will be able to contribute to gender equality and equity, taking into account the intersections of ethnicity, race, class, age and sexuality and contributing to rethink the idea of citizenship,” says the Guild study.

Cost excludes less advantaged students

Despite the successes of many of the pioneering joint programmes in Europe and the support through scholarships, such as Erasmus Mundus, which provides a limited number of grants to non-EU as well as EU students, the report says the cost (in monetary and capacity terms) and the logistical challenges of double degree schemes and joint programmes means many students are excluded from taking part.

The high cost of living in many European countries is also a barrier to many self-funded students from less advantaged backgrounds.

Hence, short-term mobility is growing to meet the needs of students who are excluded from traditional mobility designs of studying abroad.

Articulate the value of study abroad

The report notes that universities often assume the added value of transnational collaboration, but this needs to be better articulated.

The benefits commonly mentioned for institutions include capacity building, often through joint study programmes, and improving the quality of education and prestige, and where relevant the income from international student fees.

While potential benefits for students are often cited as enhancing intercultural awareness, improved language ability and leadership skills.

These claims are based on assumptions, the report says, which suggests study abroad is often transformational, but that can depend on the motivation and effort of the individual student and the environment they find themselves in while abroad.

A contested benefit is whether mobility improves employability skills, with many employers unaware that joint study programmes can lead to joint degrees and don’t see what enhanced skills and competencies joint or double degree graduates may offer.

Strengthening European identity

The European Commission also claims transnational education strengthens European identity, democracy, and belonging and helps to tackle global challenges, especially green and digital transitions and that it nurtures equality.

It often points to the 13 million people who have benefited from the Erasmus mobility programme since 1987, but the Guild’s paper says underprivileged students have been under-represented, hence the shift to shorter, more agile forms of mobility.

The report highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic taught higher education that it needs to be more agile and that physical presence is only one aspect of education and that blended mobilities and the flexible use of technology means “multiple forms of mobility (can) be an integral part of the student journey”.

These views are becoming more central with the “conceptualisation of the European universities of the future” and the Guild’s report says mobility should not just be seen as a ‘one-off’ to a portfolio of learning.

“Opportunities for combining virtual, short and longer physical mobility and blended design can all be seen as parts of a coherent whole”.

Alliances offer different pathways

The new European University Alliances, backed by European Union policymakers, offer different pathways to connectedness in the post pandemic landscape and offer the chance to “to move beyond resilient barriers of the past,” claims the report.

They can build on the legacy of the Bologna Process, which has been “relatively successful in terms of the compatibility of degrees, a pan-European system of credits and quality assurance alignment” and move beyond bilateral partnerships.

The Alliances are a “conduit for doing things differently”, including addressing the challenge of interdisciplinarity, according to the report’s lead author, Professor Angouri, who says: ”We have a ‘moment’ for educational change that will not come again soon.”

She said: “The sector’s current support and participation in international education activities shows the buy-in.

“To build on this momentum, we need to approach transnational collaboration with a new holistic approach which must cut across resourcing, careers, admin, pedagogical support, and infrastructure.”

She told University World News: “Internationalisation in the form of joint programmes is, simultaneously, difficult in terms of administration, logistics and national legislation and beneficial for students and institutions as well as the sector in enhancing conditions that enable other types of cooperation.

“Experimentation and creativity cannot and should not be associated with any one design and, or product; our collective aim should be to support existing programme level collaboration, increase multiple learning activities and mobilities in study programmes to achieve expanding opportunity for large cohorts of students.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com


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