08 juli 2020

Webinar - Rethinking student mobility after corona: “virtual mobility is an enhancement not a replacement”

Mariëlle van Heumen

Mariëlle van Heumen


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How did the corona crisis affect student mobility in Europe, in what ways did educational institutions react and what is the EU’s response to new developments? These were some of the questions that were asked during the webinar “Rethinking student mobility after corona” Neth-ER organised in cooperation with the liaison offices NorCore and SwissCore. Representatives from the Dutch, Swiss and Norwegian educational field and the European Commission stressed that virtual mobility should be an enhancement, but by no means a replacement, of physical mobility.

Webinar - Rethinking student mobility after corona: “virtual mobility is an enhancement not a replacement”

Student mobility during and after corona 

The corona crisis has severely disrupted student mobility all over Europe, causing an abrupt standstill of physical mobility and forcing educational institutions to find creative solutions for international mobility and education. In cooperation with NorCore and SwissCore, Neth-ER welcomed multiple stakeholders from the field of education and also Sophia Eriksson Waterschoot, Director for Youth, Education and Erasmus+ from the European Commission. Together, the speakers discussed the impact of the corona crisis on student mobility and the way forward after corona. The webinar consisted of three parts: two panel discussions in which the short- and long-term consequences of the corona crisis on both practical learning experiences and higher education were discussed, and a final part where the Commission’s response to these developments was set out.

Resilient institutions and students 

Sophia Eriksson applauded the resilient response by institutions and students, after the disruptive effects on mobility, due to the corona crisis. The crisis stimulated institutions to find ways to continue mobility programmes, while highlighting the need for education ecosystems to become more resilient. For instance, Florence Balthasar, Head of International Affairs of the Zurich University of Arts, explained that her university started to offer online options for a large portion of the arts and design courses. She highlighted that many positive lessons could be drawn, but that in some cases online formats are simply not appropriate. Team Leader and Internship Coordinator Ric-Jan de Bont from the International Hotel & Management School, ROC Mondriaan in The Hague, portrayed how their department needed to improvise virtual classes and exams for the students who should have been on an exchange. On the other hand, according to Senior Policy Officer for Internationalisation at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, Daria Ratsiborinskaya, her university is already preparing for the virtual and physical arrival of international students in the next semester by offering proactive support to students an by creating, among other, a new ‘virtual campus’ on Minecraft.

Virtual mobility: a temporary solution

Although the stories were somewhat different, all panellists agreed that, while blended and virtual mobility offer interesting opportunities now and in the future, it can never replace physical mobility. As the Commission highlights: “virtual mobility is an enhancement, not a replacement”. For instance, Elin Kvaale, Deputy Director for research, international relations and innovation at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, mentioned that the corona crisis stimulates virtual education and internationalisation at home. Meanwhile Daria Ratsiborinskaya underlined that virtual mobility limits the possibility for intercultural exchange and personal learning. Hélène Mariaud, Executive Committee Member of the European Students Union, added that virtual and blended mobility can indeed be good alternatives, but shouldn’t replace physical mobility, because of the real-life experience that students would miss.

Strategic cooperation, the way forward

Prof. Oddrun Samdal, Vice-Rector for Education of the University of Bergen, mentioned that her university was already part of a European University alliance, Arqus, in which virtual mobility is a standard supplement to physical mobility. She added that the crisis emphasised the importance of building more of these “structures of interaction”. Indeed, according to Sophia Eriksson, networks – such as the European Universities Alliances – specifically demonstrated strong cooperation and adaptability during the pandemic, sharing good practices and online resources, which could form an inspiration to other universities. Director of Neth-ER, Jurgen Rienks, concluded by adding that learning mobility is not a nice extra, but should be increased through good institutional strategies. He argued that building more strategic cooperation can help make learning mobility an integral part of education and training, to bring it to the next level.

Corona crisis, highlighter of inequality?

The impact of the corona crisis on mobility and education certainly seems to have highlighted the inequalities surrounding mobility. While some disadvantaged students could not afford the expensive flights to go home when lockdown began, others didn’t have the materials, facilities like good internet, or a quiet place to study, in order to be able to follow virtual education, Hélène Mariaud  explained. Moreover, she added that, while virtual mobility may remove barriers for those who could not go on mobility before, we need to prevent the so called “two-speed mobility” in which physical mobility is only for those who can afford it and online mobility for those who cannot. According to another panellist, Prof. Robert Buttery, Head of International Relations, School of Business, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, now is the time to look at how students who could not access mobility before can go on mobility in the future. The Commission is also committed to make Erasmus+ more inclusive, not only through grants, but also through flexible mobility formats such as shorter mobility programmes. As Sophia Eriksson mentioned, “it is the design of activities as well that should make Erasmus+ more inclusive.”


You can watch the recording of the webinar here.