According to reports, the number of Danish students using the Erasmus programme to spend between 3 and 12 months at a university in another EU country has fallen from 1674 to 1648 between 2007-08 and 2008-09. At the same time, the number of students taking international internships have risen by almost 50 percent even if the increase has been from a much lower level.
First, despite European aspirations Erasmus exchanges only stand for a part of the total number of exchanges. Students also go to the US and Australia – universities in the latter country in particular have turned exchange students into big business. It is perfectly possible that the total number of exchanges have risen while the numbers for Erasmus exchanges are effectively flat.
Second, there may be good reasons why students don’t choose to take one or two terms abroad. The main problem is if the academic value of the exchange courses is equal to that of courses at the home university. One problem here is that even though we have the ECTS system, courses for exchange students run separately from ordinary courses. Another issue is that even though politicians and bureaucrats like to think that abandoning national languages in favour of English in higher education increases the value of courses and programmes, research has frequently shown that teaching in English for non-native speakers lowers the value of information with some 20-30 percent compared with teaching in one’s native language. This leaves the social aspect as the main point of attraction for students.
Third, an international internship may offer more value for money for students than traditional courses. To a prospective employer, such an internship will be direct proof that the applicant will and can work in an international setting. The value of a term at an Australian
university education factory is more questionable.
I do think there are some very good reasons why students should consider taking some part of their education outside of their home university – in short: you learn to think in different ways about your subject and how to organise teaching – but both students and universities would be well advised to consider the exact value of exchange programmes.
This is probably easier on the Masters level where programmes can be more specialised. It will make sense to try and attract students on a faculty basis on two to three main themes rather than trying to cover everything in more-or-less basic English language courses. This will of course demand cooperation between different departments in the planning of courses on the masters level.
I see some bigger challenges on the bachelor level where programmes are broader, even if exchanges generally take place in the fourth and fifth years.