The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Mobilities
This is part of a series on the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Coronavirus challenges to European educational systems
Although many EU countries have faced challenges brought on by the coronavirus, there are differences in the extent of required measures. In this respect, several countries have decided to take measures in terms of closing some or all educational institutions, for varying time periods (from a couple of days to an undetermined period), pending further developments concerning the spreading of the virus. UNESCO estimated that approximately 87 percent of students are affected by this closure. Moreover, educational institutions were provided with recommendations and guidance concerning preventive measures in terms of travelling and event organization, hygiene and steps to be taken in case infection occurs in educational institutions or among their staff.
Erasmus+ is the EU flagship program in the fields of education, training, youth, and sport. By the end of 2020, the program will have provided opportunities for learning mobility for more than 10 million Europeans since 1987. However, the Erasmus+ program provides more than mobility for learners (of all ages), teachers, and staff. It also enables institutions in the field of education and training in Europe (and in the rest of the world) to work in transnational partnerships and to exchange ideas, methods, and good practices. Currently 165,000 people across Europe are on an Erasmus+ exchange and 5,000 more are involved in Solidarity Corps volunteering projects.
The European Commission stated that its main objective is the safety and protection of all Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps participants, while fully respecting all the containment measures taken at the national level. The European Commission is working to help students, pupils, volunteers, and other participants in the program deal with the consequences. In this sense, the Commission continues to adapt its response to this unprecedented situation as it evolves, clarifying and simplifying the application of rules and procedures where necessary in cooperation with the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), and Erasmus+ national agencies, as national coordinating institutions for the management of Erasmus mobilities. Students are witnessing different degrees of disruption at the moment and considering the COVID-19 situation, the European Commission intends to give a flexible framework (with enough flexibility for both national agencies and higher education Institutions) and not come up with descriptive rules in order to allow for solutions tackling the individual needs of the students. What is important is that students receive the necessary support in order to ensure that they do not lose this academic year and can obtain the necessary academic credits via virtual learning. For the Solidarity Corps, they recommend repurposing the voluntary activities for the suspended participants, for example, by deploying volunteers to national support schemes being implemented to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Other volunteers postponed their exchanges, while others started “volunteering from home” through their computers, travelling to the host destination whenever the health situation permits. Many Member States already have possibilities for virtual learning, which can facilitate teaching and learning in this situation. Some are working on upgrading such possibilities to improve availability and opportunities, to allow for wider participation, and to support more efficient use of such resources. Many school excursions have been postponed and cancelled. Concerning mobility in general, national agencies for EU mobility programs are regularly disseminating information and instructions provided by the European Commission to beneficiaries. Moreover, whenever possible, participants are encouraged to refocus on virtual learning.
In March, the European Commission issued guidelines to higher education Institutions (HEIs) and national agencies, allowing them to use the “force majeure” clause to address any situation of students on the ground, to prevent as much as possible the negative impact on the students themselves. This allows them to assess the possibility of accepting additional costs justified by the COVID-19 containment measures—costs which should not exceed the total budget granted to the project. This can mitigate the negative impact of students’ Erasmus+ grants in the event of interruption of the stay abroad. As we shall see later, many students who were abroad at the outbreak of the virus had costs related to the stay (rent, electricity, travel expenses) with a lot of uncertainty regarding what would happen with the costs and the grants. National agencies have been given the biggest flexibility to adapt to the problems encountered in this situation, as some students stayed in the host country, while some went back home.
In addition, the European Commission encourages higher education Institutions to provide online courses for both students in host and home countries, and to achieve the outcomes indicated in their learning agreements regardless of the students’ geographical location, for example, through remote studying arrangements with the use of digital tools. This flexibility will in particular help students who have returned to their home countries to finish their courses at their host institution and to have the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) obtained through remote studying arrangements fully recognized. Recent graduates who need to postpone their planned placements abroad will be allowed to take them up within eighteen months of their graduation, instead of the normal twelve-month timeframe.
Ministers agreed that they all want the same: to ensure the safety of pupils, students, and staff, and to secure the continuation of learning without major educational disruptions, but to date there has not been a clear commitment from national governments to support more the educational systems.
National agencies have been asked to closely follow the problems faced by participants, especially young people who are currently abroad so that immediate and adequate support can be provided to them. Both national agencies and higher education Institutions are encouraged to cooperate with local Erasmus Student Network sections and national student unions to share information quickly with students on mobility abroad, and to arrange for peer-to-peer support for those in need.
It is still unclear how the crisis will affect the decision regarding the funding for the new Erasmus+ program and what the long-term impact of the situation will be, since the funding of the new program is linked to the negotiations of the Multiannual Financial Framework. The priority is dealing with the crisis situation until the end of it and minimising the negative impact on everyone.
The future Erasmus+ program
Later this year, decisions will have to be taken with regard to the EU’s priorities and areas of action for the period 2021–2027, and for the Multiannual Financial Framework in which funds are allocated for these priorities and actions. It is clear that the current crisis will have a major impact on these decisions and that the challenges posed by this crisis will be a central element in the negotiations.
The economic impact of the crisis will be felt by many and for a long time. Unemployment rates will rise and it seems likely that the gap between those who will still earn a good income and those who will face painful financial constraints will grow. However, large groups in society cannot be written off, and these people have to be equipped with the competencies needed for an economic recovery, not only in their personal interest, but also in the interest of Europe at large. This requires investing in education and training and this is where Erasmus+ is strong: it offers opportunities and a huge network for mutual learning between participants, organizations, sectors and countries.
The COVID-19 crisis will also bring to the test the solidarity between European nations and citizens. No country can overcome this crisis by itself. Erasmus+ by its very nature offers opportunities to connect people and organizations across Europe, ways to strengthen the bond between European citizens and to create a sense of belonging in a world where people feel more vulnerable than they have felt in decades. It is a strong tool in (re)creating and supporting a European spirit and sense of belonging and to actually live this solidarity and cooperation.
Even though virtual learning will offer new approaches, the need for face-to-face learning, teaching, and cooperation does not disappear. Online education and training, while offering opportunities for acquiring knowledge, cannot replace the experience of gaining interpersonal, intercultural, and international competencies that can be achieved only by submerging yourself in a different environment and interacting directly with people from different backgrounds. It is important that the face-to-face interactions that take place as a result of physical mobilities will start again, as soon as the health situation allows.
Impact of COVID-19 on student exchanges in Europe
In order to capture the experiences of students and trainees across Europe regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their mobility experience, the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) has written a research report on the topic, built on a survey in which about 22,000 international students and trainees in Europe provided information about their experiences:
One month after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the virus continues to cause a major disruption in every spectrum of our society. The Erasmus Student Network felt the obligation to take drastic measures and act fast in order to respond to the challenges that international students and their higher education Institutions are facing due to the outbreak. With a presence in 42 countries and in 1,000 higher education Institutions, our ESN volunteers from the first moment stood next to the international students offering peer to peer support on a daily basis. Having direct contact with international students, we were able to hear their concerns on a European-wide level and advocate for their needs to decision-makers. (Kostis Giannidis, President of the Erasmus Student Network)
The Erasmus Student Network is one of the biggest European student organizations acting in the field of student mobility and internalization of higher education. ESN is a non-profit organization of more than 530 local sections in forty-two countries in more than 1,000 higher education Institutions, gathering 15,000 volunteers. ESN provides support services to over 350,000 international students and works for their needs by facilitating their mobility period, ensuring social cohesion, reintegration and by enhancing intercultural awareness and active citizenship.
ESN developed a survey regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the students who were pursuing an Erasmus+ at the time of the outbreak. By means of the survey, ESN tried to cover higher education students, who were studying in Europe in another country than their home countries, from the different kinds of impact they encountered. This included classes and learning experience, to the mental health and well-being and discrimination. Below is a summary of the surveys’ findings, which was open between March 19th-30th, which means that several of the aspects highlighted by the students may have developed since that.
When it comes to the organizational aspects, ESN tried to find out how many mobilities actually continued and how many were cancelled. According to the survey, close to 65 percent of the students reported that their mobility continued. For 25 percent of the respondents, the mobility was cancelled, either by themselves, by their sending university, by their hosting university or by someone else (national authorities or both universities). This number includes mobilities that are temporarily cancelled, postponed to the next semester, or were reported as cancelled in any other form. Another 5 percent of respondents were unsure what was going to happen.
When it comes to their physical whereabouts, half of respondents reported that they were in their exchange destination at the moment of completing the survey, with 41.8 percent deciding to stay in their exchange destination and 40 percent decided to return home, while 5.2 percent were undecided at the moment of completing the survey. Unfortunately, some students indicated that they were stuck and unable to return home. Throughout the time that the survey was open, the proportion of students who stayed in their exchange destination slowly decreased, and the proportion of students who decided to go home slowly increased. The number of undecided respondents also decreased, indicating that more students came to a decision, meaning that the longer the crisis lasted, the more students decided to leave their host country.
Overall, this indicates that this crisis had a very disruptive effect on the mobility of the students, and more of them may have returned home since the survey was closed.
Respondents were asked to what extent they felt there was enough information available on health and safety measures related to the virus. Overall, 78.1 percent of respondents answered positively to this statement and around half of the respondents answered positively that there was sufficient information about the COVID-19 outbreak available in English or another accessible language available for international students.
COVID-19 had a big impact on the possibility of people to travel freely across Europe, as many countries issued travel restrictions. Out of 21,291 respondents, 12.0 percent said that not enough information was available on this topic. Only 43.3 percent of respondents said that they were able to find transport back to their home country.
The students were offered many types of support. Approximately three-quarters of the respondents said that they received academic support, which was followed by “social support,” “psychological support,” “logistical support,” “linguistic support,” and “medical support.” Only 14.7 percent reported that they did not receive any support at all. Support came mostly from “family and/or friends,” followed by “host university,” and “home university.” This indicates that quite a large group of students did not feel supported by their host and home university. Students also received support from other sources such as “Student organizations” (including, but not limited to, ESN) and in few cases from “local services” such as police, medical centres, or local authorities.
The students reported a diverse range of satisfaction with the information that they were provided by their host universities, with two sets of instructions that they found particularly useful; the first was the “health measures to be taken” and the second part was the “impact on working methods of student services offered by the university.” The fact that students were relatively satisfied with the health-related information may not be a coincidence, since another study by the European Association for International Education (EAIE), released shortly before the ESN study, showed that university staff focused the COVID-19 communication on providing information related to travel/mobility and on health and safety issues.
Problems with cancelled accommodation were reported by 1,260 respondents in total.
It is not difficult to understand the anxiety and stress that comes with not knowing what will happen with one’s exchange semester. A German student in Spain remarked “My only problem was to decide whether I will stay in my host country or return back home. This has been probably the hardest decision to take during my whole exchange period.” Students also had, to a smaller extent, feelings of isolation and social exclusion.
Out of the 17,125 students who responded to the question on the impact of their course schedule, only 5 percent of them said that the classes continued as normal and 9 percent reported that the classes were cancelled/postponed with no online offer available. A great majority have moved on to some kind of online classes instead: 51 percent to full online offers and 34 percent to partial online offers or partially postponed classes. The switch to online classes does not appear to have been very smooth: several problems were reported with technical issues, insufficiently prepared teachers and time difference. Some of the respondents clearly stated their disappointment regarding the switch to online classes, due to the lack of social interaction that was supposed to be an important part of their mobility.
When taking part in an international mobility period, Erasmus students receive a grant to cover extra expenses during their stay abroad. Previous research, also from ESN, has shown that the grant covers half of the expenses abroad or less for almost 70 percent of the students. How they dealt with the financial implications of cancelled/interrupted mobilities is therefore an important question. The most important finding here is that a great majority, almost two thirds, of the students do not yet know what will happen with their grants. They indicated this was still unclear, as they were still in communication with their universities or national authorities. Only 7 percent replied that they will not be able to keep any part of the grant at all, having to return the financial support due to the cancellation of their mobility. Considering the fact that many HEIs and national agencies were not prepared for the rapid changes that occurred, the uncertainty at the time of the research was rather understandable.
Racism and discrimination represent a significant problem, which was signalled by around 6 percent of all the respondents, who reported that they experienced discrimination based on their nationalities, either to a great extent or to a very great extent (it is worth mentioning that Italian and Asian students were clearly overrepresented in this group). This percentage is very worrying. It is probably not too far-fetched to guess that these disproportionally high numbers have to do with the fact that the virus started in Asia and that Italy was the first European nation to be hit very hard by the outbreak.
Currently, the top priorities are to ensure that students will be reimbursed any extra cost caused by COVID-19, that the courses the students followed will be recognized by ECTS and that the students will have the possibility to benefit from Erasmus+ again in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an unprecedented challenge with very severe socio-economic consequences. ESN believes the European Commission is committed to doing everything necessary to meet this challenge in a spirit of solidarity. Since the onset of the crisis, Member States have continuously stepped up efforts to support the economy and we hope the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will play a central role in the economic recovery. It will have to reflect the impact of this crisis and the size of the challenges ahead, by setting the right priorities, to allow Member States to effectively address the fallout of the coronavirus crisis, to support the economic recovery, and ensure that cohesion within the Union is maintained through solidarity, fairness, and responsibility.
One of the main question marks right now is what will happen with the mobilities in the next semester. Some universities announced that they will cancel the mobilities, some others said that they will keep the mobilities but probably will be done partially online and partially physical. The European Commission has mentioned that a possible way forward is to start the fall semester with online classes and then start the physical Erasmus+ mobility once the health situation allows it. However, nobody knows yet.
The impact of the current crisis on the student exchanges is obvious. As previously mentioned, we are not only talking about the cancelled mobilities of this semester, but also about the uncertainty regarding the future developments in the field.
Starting from all the support offered by the local volunteers to exchange students (even if in some cases this could be nothing more than moral support), continuing with the research realised at European level and with the recommendations made for approaching the current situation in a way that will ensure firstly the safety and secondly the quality of students’ mobility, ESN will continue its work in order to help young people take the best out of their mobility experience, whenever or however it will take place.
All parties involved in managing the situation are acting and will act having the health and safety of the population as a top priority. Therefore, patience and understanding are the key attitudes we should have while waiting for our answers regarding the immediate and long-term future of the Erasmus+ mobilities and program.
Alexandru Pieptea has been a member of ESN Romania for almost four years. He was elected national president of the organization in 2019 and, following a successful mandate, was re-elected for a second one in March 2020. An advocate for increasing the standards of higher education in Romania, especially for Erasmus+ beneficiaries, Alexandru and his team have developed the education community in ESN Romania with the purpose of spreading awareness on students’ rights and having tighter collaboration between ESN and higher education Institutions in Romania.
Erasmus Student Network AISBL, 2016, The International-Friendliness of Universities survey, available at: https://esn.org/esnsurvey/2016
Erasmus Student Network AISBL, 2020, April 9, ESN releases the biggest research report on the impact of COVID-19 on student exchanges in Europe, available at: https://esn.org/covidimpact-report
Erasmus Student Network AISBL, 2020, March 24, COVID-19 implications on Erasmus+ students, available at: https://esn.org/news/covid-19-implications-erasmus-students-qa-webinar
European Association for International Education, March 2020, Coping with COVID-19: International higher education in Europe, available at: https://www.eaie.org/our-resources/library/publication/Research-and-trends/Coping-with-COVID-19–International-higher-education-in-Europe.html
European Commission, 2020, March 13, Coronavirus: Consequences for Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps mobility activities, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/news/coronavirus-consequences-erasmus-and-european-solidarity-corps-mobility-activities_en
European Parliament Multimedia Centre, 2020, May 4, CULT committee meeting, available at:https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/en/cult-committee-meeting_20200504-1500-COMMITTEE-CULT_vd
European Parliament News, 2020, April 15, Erasmus+ students during Covid-19, available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/2020408IPR76811/erasmus-students-during-covid-19-meps-call-for-more-support-and-clarity
European Parliament News, 2020, May 5, How Covid-19 affects Erasmus and EU Solidarity Corps, available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20200429STO78173/how-covid-19-affects-erasmus-and-eu-solidarity-corps
European Parliament, 2020, April 21, Live discussion with MEP Sabine Verheyen on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on young people, available at: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=511636506178441&ref=watch_permalink
Lifelong Learning Platform (LLLP), April 2020, Advocacy newsflash, available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IKclRkVCpLa8_x60tqAQIRIERSNxaz6W/view
Open letter to the European Commission by NA Directors Education & Training, April 2020, available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1JrpC8QLrZQW-TPyUIZUCAEtZed4MdmWx/view.
 The complete guidelines can be accessed here: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/news/coronavirus-consequences-erasmus-and-european-solidarity-corps-mobility-activities_en
 The survey can be accessed here https://esn.org/covidimpact-report.
 The study by EAIE can be accessed here: https://www.eaie.org/our-resources/library/publication/Research-and-trends/Coping-with-COVID-19–International-higher-education-in-Europe.html.
 See https://esn.org/esnsurvey/2016
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Published on July 15, 2020.