Student mobility tendencies and territorial orientation – a case study from Hungary

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Posted on:Dec 5,2021


In the new global economy, higher education has received central attention, and its internationalization has become one of the most researched fields of higher education both abroad and in Hungary. Student mobility plays a key part in the internationalization of education, as studying abroad brings significant benefits to students’ learning processes and to the development of their competencies as well. This paper aims to outline the Erasmus+ program and present the role of student mobilities. This research is to analyse the willingness to participate in mobilities and the territorial orientation of mobilities based on linear regression analysis in the European Union and at Szent István University, as well as the number of outgoing students at SZIU. It has been found that a few macroeconomic factors influence mobility numbers and most popular routes on the mobility map are determined by social, economic, and historical factors, with the southern member states of the European Union being the most popular destinations.


Erasmus+ is the program of the European Union to support education, training, youth- and sport-related activities. With a budget of 16.45 billion euro for the period between 2014-2020, the program aims to provide more than 4 million participants with the opportunity to acquire new competencies, personal, social, educational and professional development through education, training or work experience as well as through volunteering anywhere in the world. It aims to promote quality, innovation, excellence and internationalization among organizations involved in education and training, youth and sport. Erasmus+ will also help European countries to modernize their education and training systems, youth and sport policies, strengthening their incentive role in growth, job creation, competitiveness, innovation and social cohesion (Commission report, 2018).

The European Commission has expressed its aim to encourage 12 million students to participate in Erasmus+ in the next programming period (2021-2027), which will triple the number it has planned for the current 2014-2020 period. The intention to triple the number of participants and double the budget provoked a sceptical reaction. However, the Commission argues that such a scenario is possible to achieve through the wider use of more flexible mobility types, such as short-term and group mobility, virtual exchanges and “blended” mobility (combining virtual exchanges and short physical mobility) in order to attract more people.

The World Health Organization has declared Covid-19 as a pandemic that has posed a contemporary threat to humanity. This pandemic has successfully forced global shutdown of several activities, including educational activities, and this has resulted in tremendous crisis-response migration of universities with online learning serving as the educational platform. The crisis-response migration methods of universities, faculty and students, challenges and opportunities have been discussed and it is evident that online learning is different from emergency remote teaching. Online learning will be more sustainable while instructional activities will become more hybrid provided the challenges experienced during this pandemic are well explored and transformed to opportunities (Adedoyin és Soykan, 2020).

Literature review

Education makes a significant contribution to the economic development of a nation, whether developing or advanced. One of the most important resources for the development of the economy is human capital, i.e. the national labour force. Quality education is needed to provide a productive workforce that leads permanently to a nation’s sustainable economic growth and a welfare society (Zvarikova and Majerova, 2013, Vasvári et al., 2020)). Mankiw et al. (1992) suggests that investing in human capital can lead to the development of a truly productive workforce (Thoppan et al., 2019).

As entities involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, higher education institutions are increasingly taking on a kind of entrepreneurial role, including networking and international cooperation, and increasingly focusing on critical issues of sustainability and social change (Frondizi et. al, 2019).

Many higher education institutions have begun to incorporate sustainable development practices into their institutional structures and have developed a wide range of sustainability assessment tools to support institutions in their regular measurement, monitoring, benchmarking, and communication efforts (Findler et. al, 2018).

Future research opportunities can be exploited by creating studies that focus on human capital.

Promoting mobility within Europe was one of the six important objectives of the Bologna Declaration (1999). In the Declaration which also established the European Higher Education Area, the signatories committed themselves to comparable diplomas, the separation of undergraduate and graduate degrees, a single credit system, quality assurance, the European dimension in higher education and the European mobility of students and teachers. Two years later, Prague Communiqué (2001) expanded the original objectives in terms of lifelong learning, the involvement of students as active partners and the enhancement of the competitiveness of the European Higher Education Area. The 1999 declaration was signed by 29 European countries and by now the European Higher Education Area has 48 members.

It would be also of interest to deepen the scarce knowledge on intellectual capital in HEIs by contrasting the perceptions of the governance board and the students concerning the different activities of this type of knowledge institution which play a significant role in educating proactive citizens regarding sustainable development and quality of life, with a clear vision of social impact (Matos Pedro et al., 2020).

Student mobility is one of the most visible elements of the internationalization of education (Byram and Dervin 2009, Lukács et al., 2020). Its basic goal is to strengthen and raise awareness of European identity and citizenship. Secondly, student mobility aims to promote European cultural diversity and multiculturalism (King and Ruiz-Gelices, 2003). Thirdly, it is to benefit more effectively from the knowledge of employees with foreign work experience (Honvári, 2012; Bite et al., 2020). Finally, studying abroad has significant advantageous effects on students’ learning processes and the development of their competencies (Bracht et al., 2006):

  • such theoretical knowledge may be acquired which is not provided by the sending institution or can be gained only at a lower level;
  • social, economic and cultural experience can be gained in the host country;
  • successful studies can be pursued in basically cross-border disciplines, professions (eg. international law, international business, etc.);
  • internationally comparable views can be learned;
  • students’ scope can be extended and more nuanced through the experience gained from learning about different cultures;
  • intercultural communication techniques can be mastered and intercultural competencies can be developed.

Erasmus+ students from Eastern European countries show the strongest levels of European identity prior to and after the mobility, although in the case of Erasmus+ graduates those from Northern European Programme Countries reported the highest levels of European identity (Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study, 2019).

Empirical tests of the two identified objectives of Erasmus mobility can be found in professional literature. About the first, namely the effect of strengthening European identity, researchers have divided views. Previous studies (Kuhn, 2012) have not found a significant “Erasmus impact” related to European identity. According to Sigalas (2010) and Wilson (2011), the impact of mobility on the development of European identity is exaggerated. In contrast, Mitchell’s (2015) research among 1,729 students from 28 universities in 6 countries concluded that participation in the Erasmus exchange program has a significant and positive relationship with the development of European identity and Europeanness. Cross-border activities, conscious mobility programs and plans have contributed to Hungary becoming one of the countries in which gaining foreign experience for a longer or shorter period of time is getting more and more evident among young people (Kincses, Rédei 2010).
Due to the scale of the survey, The Erasmus Impact Study (Brandenburg 2014) certainly provides the most complete picture of the labour market effects of Erasmus mobility, with 56,733 students interviewed. The results showed that participation in international mobility increased students’ job prospects, including the greater likelihood of later employment abroad. Better positions were achieved and better progress was reported by students participating in a mobility compared to non-participants. Further studies on the field confirm the same results. Bryła (2015) asked employees with many years of professional experience about their previous mobility activity (joining the mobility program in 2006 and the survey in 2012). They confirmed the positive impact of their mobility on their professional careers. Moreover, Engel (2010) points out that students in Central and Eastern European countries benefitted more from their mobility than their Western European counterparts.
Erasmus+ participation was reported as enriching academically, socially, personally, and in terms of the development of employability. Over thirty years after its inception, Erasmus+ continues to generate significant impacts for students across a wide range of areas related to the programme objectives, according to the views of students, and to direct measures of change undertaken during the data collection process. These areas are key for economic development and social inclusion and encompass employability skills development, motivation for further study, intercultural openness, tolerance and engagement with social and political issues. The results of the programme on these “impact areas” are high across the board. They are particularly high with regards to intercultural openness, which is a matter of high priority in the current political climate. The impact of the programme on the development of employability skills, on the other hand, seems to have experienced a slight decrease since 2014.

Contrary to the situation in 2014 we did not find that they experienced lower levels of unemployment than non-Erasmus+ gradates – although this may be due at least in part to changes in the methodology used to assess these differences in the two studies. However, Erasmus+ graduates found their first job quicker after graduation (79% did within three months from graduation, compared to 75% of non-mobile graduates), were happier with their jobs than non-mobiles and worked abroad more often. They ranked their jobs well in terms of valuable aspects such as job security and career prospects. They reported significantly higher levels of social recognition in their jobs than non-mobile graduates and around two thirds (rather) agreed that their job was characterised by a high income. 72% of Erasmus+ graduates considered that their Erasmus+ experience had been beneficial or highly beneficial for them in finding their first job and 82% for their overall career development – the results being even stronger for Southern European and Partner countries. 40% of graduates who undertook an Erasmus+ traineeship reported to have been offered a position in the company where they did their traineeship, suggesting a strong contribution to their labour market integration (Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study, 2019).

Erasmus also seems to be highly consequential in terms of personal relationships: almost a quarter of those Erasmus+ graduates who live with a life partner maintain an international relationship, and more than half of these reported to have met their current partner during their Erasmus+ mobility.

Territorial orientation – the methodology of the case study

King and Ruiz-Gelices (2003) proposes that student mobility is rarely identified as a migration phenomenon in the academic literature. However, there are more popular routes on the “mobility map” that are usually outlined along social, economic and historical grounds. Teichler (2011) examined student mobility patterns in 32 program countries over the past decade. His study elaborates on that at the time of the survey, the main destinations for student mobility were the UK, Germany and France, with two-thirds of students choosing these three countries. After 2011, the target countries within the European Union developed as follows: 27% of students decided on Spain, while only 14% of students chose Italy as their destination.
According to the latest data from the European Commission – which is in charge of managing this programme – Spain receives the most Erasmus students with almost 47,138 students out of the 800,000 enrolled in the 2016-2017 academic year.
It surpasses the figures of German universities which receive nearly 32,876 and the United Kingdom receiving approximately, 31,243 that are the second and third countries in the ranking, respectively. Not forgetting the 44,600 registered from the previous year of the total number of Erasmus students who go to Spain, 33,155 did so to study and 13,983 to complete internships in companies.

Most students go to Spain because they are interested in the Spanish culture and language, which they can perfect throughout their stay. It is worth noting that Spanish is the fastest growing language in the world. According to the report El español, una lengua viva 2018, published by Cervantes Institute, Spanish is the official language in 21 countries and is currently spoken by more than 577 million people, which is approximately 7.6% of the world’s population (Commission report, 2018).
Gross domestic product (GDP) is a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period. GDP (nominal) per capita does not, however, reflect differences in the cost of living and the inflation rates of the countries; therefore, using a basis of GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) is arguably more useful when comparing living standards between nations, while nominal GDP is more useful comparing national economies on the international market. The analysis of Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study (2019) also revealed consistent variations with regards to the impact reported by home region and the GDP per capita level of a participant’s country of study. In particular, participants studying in below average GDP countries (which tend to be in Partner Countries, Eastern and Southern Europe) tend to report a greater impact from mobility than participants studying in countries with higher levels of GDP per capita. In this regard, Erasmus+ can be considered a contributor to cohesion within Europe and as an “equaliser”.

Thus, countries with a lower GDP per capita can show a higher number of mobilities, the table below illustrates how this correlation develops in Hungary. The five most popular destinations, i.e. Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in the proper order, serve as a basis. The linear regression analysis method is used to establish the relationship.

In statistics, linear regression is a linear approach to modelling the relationship between a scalar response and one or more explanatory variables (also known as dependent and independent variables). In linear regression, the relationships are modelled using linear predictor functions whose unknown model parameters are estimated from the data.

There was a perceptible correlation between the variables, r = 0.59, so the lower the GDP per capita is (The World Bank Open Data, 2019), the more students are likely to mobilize in that country.

In Hungary, 2-5% of students in higher education participated in international mobility in the 1990s (Rédei, 2006; Rivza és Teichler, 2007; Teichler, 1996, 2004). Regarding the domestic situation in the mid-2000s, Honvári (2012) claims that there is a difference between the country rankings in terms of popularity and actual travel. The intention to learn a language and possessed language skills play a big role in starting studies or other mobility abroad. Honvári (2012) finds that students do not choose a country primarily for study purposes, so they would not go abroad for studies or for professional studies, but to improve their cultural competencies. The Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study (2019) data also reveals substantial impact with regards to competence development, both in terms of competences relevant to employment such as adaptability, critical thinking, communication skills or foreign language skills (most often, between 70% and 80% of participants reported improvements depending on the skill) and those relevant to social cohesion, such as intercultural understanding or critical analysis of the media (with large majorities of respondents reporting improvements on these).
At Szent István University, on the other hand, the five most popular mobility destinations are Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It is interesting to note that while Italy has the lowest expenditure on education (as a percentage of GDP) among the countries surveyed, the higher education institutions of this particular country receive the most Hungarian students (Global Innovation Index, 2020).

The explanation of the order is mainly to be found in the distribution of the number of students by faculty. Students from the agricultural-focused faculties (Faculty of Horticulture, Faculty of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Food Science) prefer to mobilize to the southern member states of the European Union since the natural conditions in these areas are the most favourable for students studying in higher agricultural education. In the last three years, the highest number of students leaving on a scholarship, that is 27%, chose Italy as their destination, while 21% of students considered Germany and Spain to be an attractive destination.
It is also clear that foreign experiences lead to a self-motivating process: mobility is easier for those who have previously been involved in similar activities. This is true even if we know that the intention to migrate is not yet a reality. Based on the Hungarian database of Eurostudent V, Kiss (2014) points out that socio-economic status (perceived and real economic situation, parents’ educational level, etc.) significantly influences the international mobility intentions.

Several such barriers can be identified in mobility trends that characterize almost all countries (Souto-Otero et al. 2013; Teichler 1996, 2004; Teichler, Janson 2007). These include lack of information, low level of motivation for mobility, inadequate financial support, low level of foreign language skills, lack of time or inadequate opportunities for international students for new curricula and programs, concerns about the quality of mobility experiences, legal barriers (such as visa, immigration rules, work permit) and performance acceptance challenges. Teichler and his colleagues (2011) identified growing financial support, increasingly harmonized study programs, and personal support as elements supporting mobility.

Fears of delay in graduation and lack of information about how the programme works also remain frequent barriers. The Erasmus+ programme has been contributing to the realisation of EHEA (European Higher Education Area) by the free movement of students and staff through the provision of an organisational, administrative and financial framework for it. The results of the study, in terms of the regional variations reported, show that some students still face greater institutional obstacles, e.g. recognition of credits, than others. Financial hurdles also prevent many students from participation. As the EHEA (European Higher Education Area) still pursues its objective to send abroad 20% of all higher education students, additional ways to support students should be explored and adopted (Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study).


On the one hand, the basic aim of student mobility is to strengthen European identity and citizenship and to promote multiculturalism. On the other hand, it is a high priority to make more effective use of the knowledge of workers with foreign experience.

The most popular routes on the mobility map are determined by social, economic, and historical factors, and the most popular destinations are the southern member states of the European Union. Hungary as an example illustrates; thus, can be declared that there is a perceptible correlation between popular travel destinations and macroeconomic indicators, and the exploration of correlations with non-financial indicators (HDI, MPI, GII index, etc.) can be the subject of a further research.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing economic difficulties brought new contexts for the continuation of the Bologna Process. But there are other subtler changes, including new lifestyle, new technologies, and new communication codes and cultures that can be just as significant. One of the most important changes is, of course, the success of the Bologna Process which has transformed European higher education. More than a decade ago, Bologna was in the political focus at which efforts were made to increase the coherence of European higher education systems and to reform and modernize them. Bologna has proven to be a creative and dynamic process with numerous indirect and direct effects. Its success far exceeded the intentions and aspirations of the signatories of the original declaration.

However, Bologna now must face change – both economic and political changes, as well as social, cultural and scientific changes. Another step forward is that the Bologna Process “goes beyond Bologna” – not so much in terms of adding new “lines of action” that inevitably face political difficulties, but in terms of recognizing and realizing creative potential. Moreover, Bologna needs to become a more systematic and open process. It needs to be more systematic, as existing synergies and opportunities for new relationships need to be better recognized, and thus more open, because “Bologna” (as a focus of interest for politicians and a symbol or “brand”) offers a vital space for cooperation in European higher education.

With a more systematic and open Bologna Process, all mobility programmes can remain sustainable, meeting the European Commission’s expectation of 12 million students participating in Erasmus+ in the next programming period (2021-2027).


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Henrietta Janik
PhD student, Hungarian University of Agriculture and LifeSciences