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Student mobility in Europe and the BRICS: What for ? – A Euro-BRICS perspective Aiming at globalisation, through cultural diversity, based on clear identities

Position paper in advance of the next Euro-BRICS online meeting on Student Mobility in Europe and the BRICS, crossed visions:  Euro-BRICS online meeting, November 25th. 

Europe’s advantage in terms of student mobility programmes is that of time and experience. But BRICS’ student mobility is anchored in XXIst century challenges. Crossed visions on this theme are of obvious mutual interest[1].

Europe in the 1980s / BRICS today : one aim, two contexts

When the European Community[1] launched the Erasmus programme of student mobility among European countries in 1987, the situation in this regard was the following :

  • internet hadn’t been invented yet
  • academic exchanges concerned professors mostly
  • student mobility was solely flowing from Europe to the United States and concerned small numbers of individuals
  • the European project was about to fulfill its economic part and was heading to a political union which required the training of future European citizens

To open young minds to languages, cultural diversity and the European dimension, the Erasmus programme was set up based on the mobility of students themselves. It was requested by top level political leaders of the time such as François Mitterrand in France, Helmut Kohl in Germany and even Margaret Thatcher in the UK. But it wasn’t easy to actually launch given the unwillingness of national Ministries of Education who saw the programme as a foreign intrusion in what was seen as a sovereign sector. In fact, students themselves had to team up with these political leaders so that the programme could actually see the light of day[2].

Regarding the BRICS, the situation presents common and different features worth noticing :

  • academic mobility concerns mostly professors
  • flows are overwhelmingly (even if decreasingly) oriented towards Europe and the United States
  • internet has become the main connecting tool
  • intra-BRICS mobility probably doesn’t aim at creating any such thing as a BRICS citizen identity ; probably rather at opening horizons and intensifying links among countries which used to be either insulated (China) or solely directed towards Europe or the United States
  • BRICS mobility, compared to Europe’s, presents two specific contraints: the large amount of potential students concerned and the long distances between countries involved


Student mobility : aiming at globalisation, through cultural diversity, based on clear identities

On the basis of these differentiated characteristics, the question « student mobility : what for ? » is worth being asked again for both Europe and the BRICS. In Europe, the Erasmus programme  has been inserted into a wider-ranging Erasmus-Mundus programme[3] and the specific aim of forging European citizen identity has been a bit forgotten. In the BRICS, the aim as we’ve seen is mostly one of redirecting academic flows among a group of countries which now have a lot to offer in this regard. It is clear that if the BRICS create the conditions to attract BRICS students into BRICS universities, they also create the dynamics capable of attracting students from all over the world.

But the key word for student mobility is probably « diversity ». The aim of student mobility is to train future professionals and citizens to the multicultural environment they will operate in, whatever their speciality. In a globalised world, countries and companies need globalised people to make it run and improve, i.e. people combining their languages skills, their knowledge of different cultures, their capacity to interact with one another fruitfully.

Languages, cultures and intercultural relations can therefore be considered as the most obvious and desirable added-value to be gained from student mobility.

But globalisation has also a natural tendency to result on the contrary in the production of a new cultural sphere: the global one, made up of people speaking one language, accessing one single conceptual corpus, exchanging with people from a similar background… a monocultural world inevitably disconnected from the cultural diversity of global societies.

Europe has experienced this evolution with universities willing to attract foreign students and ending up providing all-English courses…The question is : how long does it remain useful to study abroad if you end up getting there what you can get at home ?

To prevent such drift, student mobility both in Europe and the BRICS should take into consideration the following problematic : how should universities design their exchange programmes in a way that ensures to the visiting students a true immersion into a new authentic cultural, conceptual and linguistic background ?

This purpose of both preserving and building on global diversity requires that students themselves are well-anchored into their cultural backgrounds. In today’s world, this objective is only apparently easily reachable. In fact, just like building well-identified individuals in Europe requires mobility within one’s country of origin and among European countries for a student to know who he/she is and where he/she comes from, student mobility in the BRICS may include mobility within the large countries composing their group. Given the size and diversity of India for instance (but the situation is similar in most BRICS countries, as it is in Europe), shouldn’t Indian students be given the opportunity to study first in another state before they are embarked on studies abroad ?


Making the most of modern tools of interaction and education : the Internet and the new « knowledge economy »

We also identified a specificity of today’s student mobility compared to the 1980’s student mobility: the Internet. This instrumental asset combines with the challenge of moving very large quantities of students around long distances, two other characteristics of BRICS and XXIst century student mobility. If the aim is to connect young individuals to the global multicultural dimension, geographical mobility is not the only tool available today. Student mobility programmes should also include a whole set of tools designed to build up the European or BRICS online academic community involving the students.

The question of which students should be entitled to study abroad is also key in the definition of a programme of student mobility. Is the aim to train a small number of future elites ? or to open the horizons of the largest possible number of students ? Both objectives are legitimate, in fact both can be combined, however they will not result in the same strategy. Indeed it might be worth the expense to send abroad long-term stays students considered as future elites ; while for the general student public, short term stays and the involvement into internet-based academic networks, MOOCs and the like, are sufficient to force a generation of well-connected citizens and professionals.

Talking about MOOCs, the conception of student mobility programmes in the XXIst century requires to take in full consideration the characteristics of the academic sphere today, one very different fom what it used to be in the 1980s. Today, students de facto train themselves through a combination of courses in physical places such as schools and universities, and of online courses of all sorts, internships and the like. How can student mobility make the most of the new possibilities offered by today’s knowledge economy ?


Student mobility and brain drain

A special attention should be paid to the risk of brain drain conveyed by excessive or improperly-thought student mobility. In some countries in Europe (France for instance), student mobility has sometimes more in common with unemployment figures management than real education: studying abroad is now an integral part of any higher education scheme regardless of each individual’s personality and desires ; but love stories and professional opportunities often result in many students never coming back to their home country. This can be considered a detrimental effect of student mobility failing to bring back the expected return on investment to the home country and conveying negative consequences on family structures and individual balance. Means to counter this effect should be considered at the early stages of conception of any student mobility programme.


Here are some of the problematics and questions LEAP and its Euro-BRICS network will discuss on November 25th in the framework of their third online discussion.

[1] The « European Union » dates back to the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. Before that, it was called the « European Community » (EC) (and even before, the « European Communities »)

[2] The trans-European student association, AEGEE-Europe, played a key role in the adoption of the programme at that time.

[3] Erasmus Mundus promotes mobility of European students beyond the Europe