Student exchange agreements are still largely established through personal relationships between individual scholars, resulting in issues around the quality and longevity of such partnerships, a policy advisor has claimed.
Paul Leys, policy advisor in the international relations office at Ghent University in Belgium, said that student exchanges developed through professional connections made sense 30 years ago when Europe’s Erasmus student exchange programme first started and a small number of students were mobile. But he said that the expansion of study abroad initiatives means that academics involved in the partnerships “can’t themselves support…students any more”.
Many universities “want to have as many students going abroad as possible” and are working towards improving the recognition of qualifications, but the “focus on quality is still lacking at too many institutions”, he said.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Leys added that partnerships established based on personal relationships are often never properly evaluated and are at risk of either lasting for years regardless of their quality or ending abruptly if individual academics involved leave their positions.
“We need to rethink this system. Personal relations are still key, but we need to have more of a qualitative approach towards partnerships,” he said.
Mr Leys said that he hoped that a new online quality assessment tool called eQuATIC, which he has developed at Ghent University in partnership with other Flemish institutions, would help to tackle some of these issues.
The tool aims to help universities assess the quality of international partnerships by allowing staff to upload data that is automatically processed and then tallied into scores measuring the performance of incoming and outgoing students and the quality of support and facilities at the host institution.
Mr Leys said that the project, which is co-funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme and builds on a project funded by the Flemish government, will allow universities to “look at strengths and weaknesses of partnerships” and “try to improve” both their own performance and their bilateral cooperation.
“We want to promote data-informed decision-making in internationalisation,” he said.
Paul Leys will be speaking on a panel discussing exchange agreements at the EAIE conference on 12 September.