Geopolitical instability challenges student mobility in European higher education

Teksti | Marcela Barcakova , Mika Launikari

In the aftermath of COVID-19, there have been the first optimistic reports of an upturn in international student mobility. Whether this positive development will continue depends largely on the current geopolitical reality and how well higher education in Europe is able to cope with instability and turbulence resulting from regional conflicts, economic crises and societal polarisation. This article provides some food for thought with regards to what affects mobilities, the impact of mobilities and how to adapt to the challenges identified above.

Photo by Riccardo Piccinini / Adobe Stock (Laurea Education Licence)

Since the launch of the European Union’s Erasmus programme in 1987, some 14 million people have benefited from opportunities to study, train, work or volunteer abroad by the end of 2022 (European Commission 2023a). The added value of mobility is widely recognised. A learning experience abroad offers an unparalleled opportunity for students/trainees to develop valuable skills, broaden their personal and professional horizons and enhance their networks. Against this background, the European Commission is currently concerned about the prevailing decline or stagnation of mobility in higher education in Europe and is taking action to put student mobility back on a growth path.

As a concrete measure to strengthen mobility, the new Council Recommendation ‘Europe on the Move’ – learning mobility opportunities for everyone as part of the Talent Mobility package was adopted in November 2023 (European Commission 2023b). The Recommendation is a fundamental part of the European Education Area (EEA), which aims to integrate learning mobility into all education and training pathways, to increase the proportion of people in the EU who benefit from a learning period abroad, and to involve more people with fewer opportunities in learning mobility, including people with disabilities. Moreover, the Recommendation promotes the attractiveness of the EU as a learning destination for talent from third countries.

Although policies and programmes to promote and structure learning mobility have been in place in Europe for decades, there are still many barriers that individual learners face when moving across borders. A recent study found that the main obstacles to learning mobility in different sectors of education and training are lack of funding, insufficient awareness of existing opportunities, inconsistent recognition policies and practices, and low interest (Kirdulytė, Abozeid, Makauskė et al. 2023). Also several demographic factors, such as area of residence (urban vs. rural environment), gender and age are associated with attitudinal, informational and financial barriers. Thus, new approaches to identifying measures that make cross-border student mobility more inclusive for those living in rural areas will be needed. (Di Pietro 2023).

Complexities around mobility

The 2021-2027 Erasmus+ programming period is half-way through, and the first steps to design the next programming period (2028-2034) have already been taken. Funding for the programme has increased over the years, and discussions have already taken place on whether funding for the programming period starting in 2028 could be doubled from the current EUR 26.2 billion to EUR 52 billion (European Youth Forum 2023). The objectives and funding of the Erasmus+ programme for 2028-2034 will be decided by the new European Parliament, which was elected in June 2024. If programme funding continues to increase, it will send an important signal to the countries participating in Erasmus+ that internationality is valued and promoted to strengthen social inclusion, the green and digital transitions and participation in democratic life. The Erasmus+ programme does not only address students in higher education, but is also open for professors, teachers, trainers, adult learners, young people, youth workers and many more (European Commission 2023c).

Nevertheless, even a cursory look at current global political developments reveals alarming prospects for higher education mobility and internationalisation in general. Overall, the current geopolitical instability has affected European student mobility in higher education. In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, the growth curve of (not only student) mobility has been disrupted by the war in Ukraine, Brexit, and climate change. Against this background, how the European universities will be able to encourage and motivate students to undertake a mobility experience to another country in times of uncertainty and negative trends requires careful analysis.

In higher education, students state that the time spent on a study experience abroad has a negative effect on the duration and permeability of their studies. Even though their studies abroad are usually recognised by their home university (though not necessarily always the case), the fact that their graduation may be delayed after one or two semesters abroad is seen as critical. At the same time there is recent evidence showing that student exchange does not delay studies or extend the duration of studies (Granato, Havari, Mazzarella & Schnepf 2024), although there may always be individuals for whom the opposite is the case.

Climate change has an impact on the numbers and volume of mobility. This brings with it increased travel costs, which is why more students opt for virtual (or hybrid) mobility. The growing number of virtual mobilities is also reflected in a study conducted by the European University Association (2023). It shows ”that 51 % of 390 institutions are preparing long-term plans to further explore virtual student mobility.” Of these institutions, 25 % already have virtual mobility in place as a standard or mandatory practice.

PIONEER Alliance promotes mobilities

The PIONEER Alliance that consists of ten higher education institutions from across Europe works on sustainable development of future cities. To this end, a common strategy for challenge-based education, impact-driven research and ecosystem co-creation will be put in action. An important element of this strategy is the creation of a European open campus that offers students, doctoral candidates and staff opportunities for study and professional development. In addition to the wide range of learning opportunities available from the various PIONEER universities, this open campus includes the promotion of international student and staff mobility in the post-pandemic world.

Today mobility opportunities offered by the PIONEER Alliance are of physical, virtual or hybrid nature. Physical mobility is to study (have a traineeship etc.) abroad, at foreign institutions, whereas virtual mobility is implemented at a distance. Within virtual mobility the digital tools and digital communication is needed and the use of them is irreplaceable. The combination of physical and virtual mobility explains the essence of the hybrid type of mobility, where both meet. Currently, numbers of virtual and hybrid mobility are on the rise.

PIONEER partners have seen how the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation. In Europe and beyond, higher education institutions have been forced to make a rapid transition to online education. Online learning and virtual mobility have become more popular and gained a strong foothold among students. This change of preferences appears to be there to stay. Long-term physical mobility is no longer favoured by students as it was in the past (European Students’ Union & Erasmus Student Network 2022). Universities have therefore had to focus their resources and efforts on providing new types of learning opportunities, including Blended Intensive Programmes (BIPs). This type of learning is an innovative way how to increase popularity of not only physical, but also virtual mobilities. BIP hybrid type of mobility consists of physical part of the mobility and then with, longer part, of the virtual mobility.

The impact of virtual mobility on individuals, institutions and society

The question currently occupying the minds of researchers and educators is how to measure the impact of virtual mobility, and what measurements and metrics should be used to do so. For statistical purposes and for measuring impact, a crucial starting point is to know what we mean by virtual mobility. Once we are able to define it, the next question to be addressed is how virtual mobility should be implemented in order to have an impact on the participating individuals and the institutions involved and on society as a whole.

We should not necessarily try to compare the different types of mobility but let them coexist. They are all different and have their own characteristics. The question is often raised as to whether hybrid mobility can be considered equivalent to full physical mobility (European University Association 2023). Most certainly not, is the answer of the authors of this article. This view is supported by several other institutions, bodies and authors (e.g. European Parliament 2020, European Students’ Union & Erasmus Student Network 2022).

There are other challenges associated with virtual and hybrid mobility, such as the current lack of a systematic (not only unified, but also institutional) way of managing this type of mobility, or how to approach teaching in virtual and hybrid forms of mobility. Other challenges are how to measure virtual and hybrid mobility, or whether physical mobility can be replaced by virtual mobility. Is it possible to consider virtual or hybrid mobility as equivalent to physical mobility (which is usually longer, requires an extension of the comfort zone, etc.)? All these challenges are the result of a dynamic, changing world to which we have to find answers.

How to adapt to new challenges?

Europe must ensure that education prepares young people for life and work, and that lifelong learning supports the up-skilling and re-skilling of working adults, including for the digital and green jobs of tomorrow. Therefore, learning mobility – whether physical, hybrid or virtual – is the key to acquiring new skills and to strengthening one’s future employability as well as personal development on long-term basis.

The European labour market needs highly educated and well-skilled young and adult workers with an international orientation and intercultural mindset. In particular, small and medium-sized enterprises across Europe suffer from a shortage of workers with the right experience and optimal competences. According to an EU survey (Santini 2023) reveals that 95 % of SMEs consider the right skills for their business important and 74 % of them say they face a skills gap for at least one job in their company. This implies the need to rethink education and training to match labour market demand in a global context, where demographic changes in Western societies and migration flows to Europe are part of the equation.


Marcela Barcakova (Ph.D.), UNIZA, works as a Project Coordinator and Officer at the Department for International Relations and Marketing at University of Žilina (UNIZA). Her main duties include coordination of domestic and international projects and running and innovation in the areas of international relations and internationalization.

Mika Launikari (PhD, M.Sc. Econ.) works as a Senior Specialist at Laurea University of Applied Sciences. His main duties include research, innovation and development in the areas of internationalisation of higher education, lifelong guidance, upskilling pathways/competence development, and transformative leadership.



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