The Caveats

Interestingly, the objective of balanced mobility was set in the EHEA context without any prior explanation of what is actually understood through balanced mobility. Or to express this differently, under which conditions mobility flows would be considered as balanced. Would only situations of perfect equilibrium between inflows and outflows be regarded as balanced or would small differences also be acceptable? These issues were not explored in the Bologna Process policy documents, balanced mobility lacking a proper definition therein. There are different potential explanations as to why this happened (or has not happened)—for example the ministers might have thought that the concept of balance was self-explanatory, or they believed that clarifying the concept would not be a task for themselves, but of the operational arm of the process—the BFUG.

Nevertheless, irrespective of the motives behind this lack of clarity, there have been earlier attempts to define what “balanced mobility” could mean. Applying this concept of balance to total student inflows and outflows, Teichler et al. proposed in 2011 to define as balanced a situation where the difference between inflows and outflows is smaller than 10 percentage points. Therefore, balanced would be not only cases where there is full equilibrium between the number of incoming and outgoing students (which is almost impossible to achieve in practice), but also cases where the differences are considered negligible or non-detrimental. This is the definition that we will be working with in the following sections in order to analyse how balanced or imbalanced EHEA mobility flows are.

Apart from the lack of a proper definition, another peculiarity of this objective in the Bologna Process context is that, while the concept of balanced mobility is pursued here primarily in degree mobility, the idea of reciprocity, of balance, is actually the cornerstone of another type of mobility, i.e. credit mobility (student exchanges). Therefore, balance in degree mobility is a borrowed concept. Reciprocity as such was one of the original aims of the ERASMUS Programme, in the sense that the programme wanted to break away from up to then traditional mobility patterns (i.e. East to West and South to North) and to foster also reverse flows (West to East and North to South). Therefore, even in the context of credit mobility balance was not meant as full reciprocity, but rather as having flows in both directions.

Knowing that the concept of balance is specific to credit mobility, we cannot help but wonder if it is at all applicable to or pursuable for degree mobility. Or to express this doubt differently—would governments have the same tools at their disposal to influence balance in degree mobility as they have in credit mobility? The short answer to this question is no, they do not.

Earlier studies (Kelo et al. 2006; Teichler et al. 2011) have highlighted the intrinsic differences between credit and degree mobility, labelling the first as a horizontal and the second as a vertical type of mobility. Credit mobility is horizontal in the sense that students move for study purposes between higher education systems that are more or less on an equal par. The main aim of credit mobility is personal development and having the experience of another type of teaching and learning (to compare with one's own). In contrast, degree mobility is seen as vertical, in the sense that students generally move from one least developed to a more advanced higher education system, in the hope of getting a better education— a better degree—or a specialisation that is not available in the home country.

As the main drivers of the two types of mobility are different, so are their main funding sources. Whereas credit mobility is largely funded via different mobility programmes (either at the European, national or institutional level), degree mobility predominantly happens outside official funding schemes (i.e. is self-funded)— estimates are that at least 90 % of degree mobile students are free movers (Teichler et al. 2011). As a result, while governments can more easily shape the credit mobility flows and move towards more balanced exchanges by adjusting the funding they make available for these purposes, they do not have the same room for manoeuvre in degree mobility, which is preponderantly self-funded and driven by individual (career) needs. We will come back to these points in Sect. 4, when we try to outline potential courses of actions that are necessary to correct imbalances.

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