Student experiences of Erasmus+ mobility during the corona pandemic

Internationalisation Higher education Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for higher education Coronavirus Internationalisation
As the corona pandemic shook up mobility habits, students and higher education institutions (HEIs) had to quickly come up with solutions and adapt to the new situation as most courses and social interactions were moved online. Feedback surveys showed that the pandemic and new mobility formats have had a considerable impact on the way Finnish students and trainees experienced their mobility.
The girl is sitting alone on the stairs.

Unexpected virtual and blended mobility

According to the Erasmus+ programme’s EU Survey participant reports filled in by students after their mobility, many felt like this move online happened overnight and not only regarding their classes but their social life as well. The participants whose experiences and feedback are examined here are outgoing students from Finland during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years.

While many reported distance teaching as a good option to continue their studies, their exchange and daily life were affected by this change. Students felt isolated as emphasised by a THL (Finnish institute for health and welfare) survey from June 2021 stating that “More than half of those studying at HEIs report that their feeling of loneliness has increased”. Students believed that they were left to figure out mobility questions on their own and according to the Erasmus Student Network Finland’s report from April 2020: “51% of the mobile students from Finnish universities felt anxiety and stress to a very great or great extent”. In the EU survey participant reports, the students were ambivalent saying that on the one hand, online classes allowed them to continue their studies and get credit recognition but on the other hand stating that they did not get the “real” mobility experience and therefore, completing their exchange during a pandemic was not worth it.

Students' and trainees' experiences about their mobility

Based on the Erasmus+ programme’s EU survey participant reports, there were both good and bad in students’ experiences but one should note that the answers were usually more detailed when the respondents were upset rather than when they were happy with their experience.

The students’ feedbacks for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years were similar to one another with the same topics coming up such as a lack of support from the host and sending institutions, very little integration, language barrier, bureaucracy, little information about the corona situation, issues regarding courses and discontent linked to finances.

One of the most recurrent topics was the administrative issues, meaning troubles with paperwork as well as the time it took to get help or answers about the corona situation or their studies. It was also often mentioned that the respondents felt isolated because of the pandemic as they could not meet the locals or their fellow exchange students. Finally, regarding finances, the 2020 spring semester answers made it clear that many students were struggling as they ended up having to pay for two rents – one in Finland and one in the host country where they were not living anymore. They said they did not feel supported enough by the Erasmus+ grant and felt that it was an unfair situation to be put in. The 2020 autumn semester outgoing students also wished for more grant support as flights and corona tests were costly during the pandemic. However, it is important to note that the pandemic was still quite new when the participants answered the survey and later on the Erasmus+ programme did compensate the students and offered financial help to cover the costs of the corona tests. Some of the issues highlighted by the EU survey participant reports are specific to the corona situation but some issues mentioned were already present before the pandemic and the situation simply exacerbated those problems.

However, the feedback had some positive elements to it as well. Some students said they were still happy about their exchange, the quality of education, the grant, the possibility to continue studying even during a pandemic and someone even qualified their mobility as “the experience of a lifetime”. In the autumn semester 2020, the outgoing students had a more positive outlook on their mobility. This is probably because they knew what to expect and the higher education institutions were ready for a predominantly online environment. In spring 2020, the pandemic affected the higher education institutions and students very suddenly, giving them very little time to get used to this change, and this is reflected in the participant reports as before the pandemic 50% of the students said they were “very satisfied with their Erasmus+ mobility experience in general” whereas after the pandemic hit, this number fell to 31%.

For the trainees, the experience seems similar to that of the students as they sometimes felt a lack of support from their supervisors, struggled with finances and the bureaucracy and could not integrate with the locals. Moreover, many of them stated that they would have liked advice or help regarding the accommodation situation before going abroad for their traineeship. Despite these issues and the corona situation, many of them agreed that their Erasmus+ traineeship was well worth it and encouraged people to apply and go for this mobility experience. One student was so enthusiastic, they stated that higher education institutions should promote this programme more.

New mobility formats during corona

Due to the corona pandemic, new mobility formats are now being implemented – notably blended and virtual mobility. Blended mobility allows for exchanges to be both in-person in the host country and online. Virtual mobility takes place online only.

A survey was conducted by the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA) in 2021 to identify the advantages and drawbacks of these new mobility formats and their possible effect on the overall numbers of mobilities in the future. According to this survey, over 90% of the Finnish respondents said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their blended or virtual mobility experience during the 2020-2021 academic year. When asked about the main reason why they chose these new mobility formats, more than 50% explained that it was for “health-related precautions” which makes sense during a global pandemic. Yet, despite the positive aspects, some drawbacks are still mentioned such as “lack of in-person experience (getting to know the city, meeting others in person)”, “quality of teaching” or “access to services on campus”. However, when asked about the interest showed to these new mobility formats in the future, almost 40% of the respondents believe that interest will be higher while almost 30% believe interest will be lower; therefore, there seems to be no clear-cut easy answer. During the pandemic though, students did not always have a choice regarding the format or their mobility as in many cas their mobility had to either be cancelled altogether or go from in-person to virtual.

The overall mobility numbers dropped during the pandemic due to safety reasons and those exchanges that did take place became more Europe-centred. All in all, many students and trainees still went abroad during the pandemic and completed their mobility successfully despite the situation as they were still drawn to the programme and the chance it offers for personal growth.

Author: Axelle Journet, trainee at EDUFI