Academic Mobility in Europe and its Transformative Potential


This is part of our special feature Governing the Migration Crisis.

In recent decades, we’ve witnessed an increased mobility of university students and scholars. International mobilities for academic purposes have become more commonplace and more diversified. Some students are moving to different countries to get a university degree, others to spend a semester abroad on a student exchange program. Academic mobility for students and staff is promoted and facilitated by several mobility programs within the European Union (EU). Global scholarly communities have become increasingly aware of the opportunities for academic mobilities after many programs for academic mobility exchanges were introduced within the evolving and expanding EU. The most prominent and widespread of them remains Erasmus, which started as a program for student exchange in the EU in 1987, and with its newer additions of Erasmus Mundus and Erasmus Plus, it now extends beyond Europe and truly involves the global community. The statistics of global mobility are impressive: in 2012-13, more than 4.5 M tertiary students were enrolled outside their country of citizenship. Since 2000, the number of foreign tertiary students enrolled worldwide more than doubled with an average annual growth rate of 7 percent (OECD 2014). The EU is interested in supporting this type of internationalised education and in 2011, it set an ambitious goal that by 2020, 20 percent of all university students would have experience of studying in another country (OECD 2016: 331).

Since the introduction of the first massive student mobility program Erasmus in 1987, the EU has amassed plentiful experience in managing the long-running programs of student and staff exchanges. Newer initiatives, such as the European Research Area, Marie Curie Actions, European Network of Mobility Centres and EURAXESS, testify to this success. Additionally, the expanding EU hosts many ongoing programs for academic mobility exchanges, such as Erasmus, Socrates, Marie Curie, Tempus and others. Countries outside the EU have strived to emulate this success. Thus, Australia is one of the leading countries in attracting large numbers of international students and hence actively promoting education as a business commodity for international students. This approach to education as a profitable export industry has attracted an emergence of a new term – edu-business – meaning education as a business opportunity (Ball 2012). Australia has also shown a strong interest in equipping Australian local students with internationalised education and for this purpose the New Colombo Plan was launched in 2015. This Plan aims to provide scholarships for the Australian students to study in the countries of Asia Pacific.

Indeed, academic mobilities of tertiary students and staff for academic career purposes are on the increase worldwide. In this research, academic mobility is seen as a part of the continuing changes in the teaching and learning processes that academic institutions are undergoing globally. These changes are often termed “internationalization of education” and they are expressed in the transformations in both the curricula and the recruitment practices of students and staff (Agoston & Dima 2012). Internationalization of education responds to the needs of preparing graduates for a globalized society and it inevitably alters the ways knowledge is transferred, exchanged and created in academia and beyond. The futures of increasingly international academic community contemplate growing opportunities for intermixing of diverse ethno-cultural identities, cultural patterns and scholarly traditions.

This paper aims to provide insights into intricacies of academic intercultural encounters and a potential transformative power they have on the careers, intercultural outlooks, and life courses of the participants. Such transformations also include opportunities for learning cosmopolitan values, dispositions, and competencies. Previous research found that intercultural academic encounters can bring about misunderstandings, refusing the other (Marginson & Sawir 2011) and resultant deepening nationalism, but they also have enormous potential for expanding horizons, cultural enrichment and acquiring cosmopolitan worldviews enrichment (Kendall et al. 2009; Kirpitchenko 2014). Cosmopolitanism has been acknowledged as offering a transformative vision of an alternative society (Beck 2002). Mobile scholars and their mobility experiences are therefore a very promising research target group because they are uniquely placed at the forefront of potential cultural transformations.


Empirical Research in the Internationalised Academia

This study was set with an objective to examine empirical evidence of the transformative potential of scholarly mobilities and how the mobility experiences may have altered the participants’ views, values, and identities. For this purpose, a highly acclaimed international academic institution was chosen where everyday academic interactions among international students are abundant and diversified. Empirical research for this study was conducted at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, which turned out to be the perfect site for examining the experiences of mobile academics in a cosmopolitan academic milieu. The EUI is an international educational institution overseen by the EU and it hosts teaching staff, fellows and research students from over sixty countries. Although located in Italy, this prestigious international university exemplifies academic mobility reflected not only in the representation of students and staff, but also in the internationalised and interdisciplinary research environment combining multiple scholarly traditions.

The author’s lengthy stays as a Visiting Scholar at the EUI provided her with ample opportunities for participating in all types of educational activities: lectures, classes, seminars, conferences, and recreational events. In this way, the author was offered unique advantages in experiencing the academic research environment enriched with cross-fertilization of research traditions and academic approaches that are unique. An additional advantage of fieldwork is that the EUI is the leading research and teaching institution devoted exclusively to social sciences and postgraduate and postdoctoral research. It especially emphasises comparative studies and international links that are of particular interest for academic migrants. For this study, research data was collected utilizing the qualitative techniques of participant observation and individual in-depth interviews with twenty-two academic migrants from mainly Central/East European countries. Research questions empirically tested an often-made theoretical assumption that intercultural encounters generate cosmopolitan values, beliefs and attitudes, also described as competencies, attributes and dispositions, which become the building blocks for successful intercultural communication and knowledge exchange.

This project benefits from utilizing insider research methods and auto-ethnography (Kirpitchenko & Voloder 2014), as the author has been actively engaged in the interactive practices, and she has been a part of transnational academic mobility as a participant and a researcher for a number of years. These transnational academic mobility experiences have helped the author to develop an insider’s viewpoints on the intricacies of intercultural dialogue in the milieu of internationalized education and transnational knowledge mobility. The empirical value of this research is seen in engaging a group of academic migrants to share their experiences, views, and perceptions of intercultural communication, with a goal of producing a better understanding of the symbolic processes in which people from different cultures create shared meanings.


Ethnographic Insights

Overall, many participants described the EUI environment as being international and/or cosmopolitan. For instance, one mobile academic with plentiful international experiences, was adamant about the EUI’s international milieu: “I have here 95 percent of students from all around the globe.” Similarly to many other accounts, a postgraduate researcher explained that there was no monolithic academic culture at the EUI: “Professors here are from different places.” The teaching cultures of the university was described as being heterogeneous and very diverse. This type of environment, which can be defined as international, intercultural or cosmopolitan, created a supportive setting so that many participants talked about enjoyable intercultural interactions, which made knowledge sharing a successful practice.

Participants referred to internationalized education as an inclusion of multiple cultures where teaching and learning become not only multicultural by promoting inclusive practices, but also intercultural by sustaining an interactive aspect of learning. Intercultural education was perceived as opening the doors to intermixing, combining and interchanging multiple cultures, worldviews and perspectives. Intercultural encounters inevitably involve transformational potential for the individuals as the processes of knowledge transfer occur and they mean much more than a one-way linear diffusion of knowledge. Successful knowledge transfer includes interactive practices, such as collaboration, linkages, sharing, and exchanges of cultural perspectives.


Towards Cosmopolitanism

Ethnographic participatory research revealed important findings on the growing perceptions of cosmopolitan outlooks and dispositions in everyday social interactions among mobile academics. The underlying idea of this discussion is that various expressions of cosmopolitan dispositions are desirable preconditions for successful knowledge exchange, knowledge transfer and knowledge creation. Two cosmopolitan dispositions that became salient in the fieldwork research include: 1) willingness to engage referring to more profound interpersonal engagement; and 2) openness to cultural diversity, which can be described otherwise as intercultural acceptance (Beck 2002).

The interviews revealed that cosmopolitan dispositions tend to be displayed by this cohort of migrants. Thus the notion of willingness to engage has featured as a profound sentiment among many respondents. The desire to be socially involved often sparked out of perceived greater isolation and emotional detachment that almost every respondent felt at the beginning of their stay abroad. Other cosmopolitan disposition termed openness to cultural diversity has found meaningful resonance in the interviews. Among participants, there was a deep sense of global openness to the world diversity, awareness of a global opportunities and responsibilities, along with globally shared collective futures. Very high hopes and aspirations of the new possibilities opening up in the new countries – this is what usually drives people to move from their home countries into the excitement of the unknown.

Intercultural acceptance presupposes recognition of plurality of viewpoints. It is an acknowledgement of the otherness of others and commitment to be self-reflexive of diverse cultures, no matter how entangled they may be in cosmopolitan milieu (Beck 2002). Many participants had favourable expectations of learning about diverse cultural imaginations. One female participant described enjoyment in interacting with people from different cultures in this way: “Their worldviews are different and you have to adjust to different viewpoints and it takes time to figure out that people are different. But it is also interesting to see how different viewpoints can be.” Another female participant also said that “it was genuinely interesting… to hear someone speaking who experienced [diverse] societies and realities.”

A male participant agreed that “being different is not necessarily your drawback” and it was only a lack of adaptation that mattered, “but when you adapt, those differences can play on your behalf.” He continued: “I cherish these differences. … I am actually curious about cultural differences and it is a good challenge: How does this work in … your culture? … It is like languages – whenever you learn another language it enriches you.” These words testify of the existing cosmopolitan dispositions that tend to surface in the midst of intercultural encounters among academic migrants in a cosmopolitan milieu.


Towards a Shared Europeanness

Education institutions are not only key sites of socialisation; they are also key educators of nationalisation. With European civic principles promoted within member nations, European identity is strived for amongst students. For many, mobility does not obscure ethnic and national identity, nor does it supersede the need for emplacement. Students might be conceived as simultaneously mobile and emplaced, able to move between territories, but always assisted and limited by spatially-grounded relationships and activities (Amit 2012). Whilst universities are organised to accommodate international networks, most of them are embedded in national education systems and informed by historical trajectories of these nations (Bönisch-Brendich 2010). Consequently, linguistic, local and national configurations within such sites continue to impact upon educational practices, everyday interactions and individual’s identities (Bilecen 2014). To explicitly transcend the national configurations, the EU has promoted the creation of pan-European educational institutions. The most well know pan-European universities include the College of Europe in Belgium, European University Institute (EUI) in Italy, and Central European University in Hungary. They have now overgrown their pan-European orientations and became truly international and intercultural universities.

Interviews among participants affiliated with the EUI reveal that academic culture of learning and teaching at this university has impact on the cultivation of Europeanness. Very frequently, descriptors such as “multinational,” “multilingual,” “multicultural community of ours,” “cosmopolitan” and “very-very international” were used in relations to the university’s environment. The appreciation of ethno-cultural differences within the university was noted by participants with their multiple references to “inclusive culture” of instruction, described also as “attentive to differences,” “friendly,” “open-minded,” “polite” and “respectful.” The EUI might be considered as one site in which particular universalist and cosmopolitan dispositions are promoted.

We can consider the work of the university in relation to other initiatives within the EU which are intended to provide the institutional setting and frameworks for fostering shared intercultural dispositions amongst the populace. The Intercultural Cities programme is one such initiative focused upon promoting its vision of “Inclusive Integration,” The intercultural paradigm as it is known seeks to “promote cultural reciprocity and symmetry in interethnic relations, adopting a public discourse fostering a pluralistic – as opposed to ethnocentric – regional or national identity, encouraging social mixing and interaction in the public space, neighbourhoods and institutions, as well as rendering governing bodies more diverse and developing the diversity/intercultural competence of public officials” (CoE 2016). How this is put in practice can at this stage only be speculated upon, but this research amongst mobile academics reveals that there is a willingness among this strata of the population to embrace this discourse. However, other studies have noted that identification with Europeanness, “does not belong to all who inhabit Europe and is not tied to clear territorial markers. Rather it is predicated upon exhibiting particular modes of behaviour, being of a particular class, and inhabiting certain states” (Voloder and Andits 2015).



The insights from the empirical study uncovered some budding manifestations of evolving cosmopolitan dispositions within academic intercultural interactions. They included intercultural values, such as: 1) willingness to engage, also described as more profound interpersonal engagement, as well as 2) openness to cultural diversity or intercultural acceptance. This paper views emerging cosmopolitan values as preconditions for successes in knowledge exchange, transfer and creation. Empirical evidence revealed that the capability of mobile academics to be successful in knowledge exchange depended to a great extent on the person’s habitual dispositions, propensities and inclinations rather than situations presented to them. Some participants learned to thrive in the new self-described cosmopolitan culture and found it even to be more comfortable and enjoyable for them. Many noted that cultural differences mattered had little salience when they are mediated by cosmopolitan dispositions. It was also becoming evident that recognition and acceptance of intercultural differences through the process of self-reflection lead to the creation of shared intercultural pathways for knowledge transfer.

This brief overview also reveals the competing discourses that seek to define and delimit European identity and the way upwardly mobile and geographically mobile academics engage with such matters. The shared educational space by the Bologna Process and its accompanying educational mobility are seen as inspiring and contributing to an increased sense of European sense of identity, belonging and inclusion (Kirpitchenko & Voloder 2016). At the same time, many commonly see this change as pertinent to the privileged strata, and this remains dependent upon differentiating the cosmopolitan Europeans from others.


Dr. Liudmila Kirpitchenko is a sociologist with interdisciplinary research expertise in cultural diversity, social inclusion, intercultural dialogue, skilled mobility and research methodology. She has over fifteen years of research experience working as an academic researcher in Australia and policy researcher in Canada. Recently, Liudmila was awarded three prestigious international mobility fellowships which provided her with excellent skills in comparative research and mobility analysis. Dr Kirpitchenko produced over twenty-five scholarly publications including a sole-authored book, a co-edited book, refereed articles in scholarly journals, and chapters in edited books on intercultural relations, student mobility, knowledge transfer and intercultural dialogue.

Photo: A girl looks up at the ceiling, under the columns of the Athenian Academy | Shutterstock



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Published on October 2, 2017.


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