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ACA Newsletter guest article by Nicolai Netz, Researcher at the Deutsches Zentrum für Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung (DZHW)

What are the reasons for the social selectivity of international student mobility?

With the implementation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the internationalisation of labour markets, it has become increasingly important for students to gain international experience by spending part of their studies abroad. There are signs that international educational mobility can positively influence students’ personality and competence development and, thereby, improve their labour market prospects. Despite these benefits and the intention of European policy-makers to increase the number of internationally experienced students, only a fraction of students temporarily studies abroad. In particular, students from less privileged families (i.e. students with a non-academic family background) still refrain from going abroad during their studies. This pattern of social inequality is observable in various European higher education systems and it stands in harsh contrast to the Bologna goal of reducing inequalities in higher education.

Several empirical studies have shown that international student mobility is socially selective. However, regarding the explanation of this phenomenon, existing research still suffers from shortcomings. Many studies only discuss social background as one among many other influencing factors. They hardly examine the extent to which different mechanisms explain the social selectivity of international mobility. Moreover, the few empirical studies searching for explanations of this social inequality suffer from data limitations. Therefore, the processes leading to social selectivity of international student mobility are still insufficiently understood.

This situation motivated an article that Markus Lörz, Heiko Quast, and I recently published in Higher Education (see reference below). In this article, we attempt to narrow the existing research gap by focussing on the mechanisms that explain why students from underprivileged families less often intend to study abroad. We do so by analysing a nationally representative panel data set from the DZHW School Leavers Survey (2010 cohort). This dataset allows us to properly operationalise the theoretical constructs that theories of rational choice and cultural reproduction suggest to explain social selectivity of international student mobility: differences in students’ previous educational history, their educational performance and current skills portfolios, their cost considerations, and their benefit considerations. We test our hypotheses by estimating logistic regression models and by decomposing the estimated social background effects.

Our findings indicate that underprivileged students’ lower likelihood of forming a study abroad intention partially results from their previous life course events. Underprivileged students are less likely to attend schools where they can deepen their foreign language skills and gain first mobility experience. Related to these educational decisions and experiences, underprivileged students later on have worse performance-related preconditions for studying abroad. They enter higher education with worse final school grades, which can negatively influence their chances to receive a study abroad scholarship, and they attest themselves worse foreign language skills. Furthermore, underprivileged students perceive financial and social costs of studying abroad as being higher and they see less benefit in studying abroad for their personality and career development. These considerations further explain their reluctance to plan a stay abroad.

The study suggests several ways forward for further research. First, we test our framework only for Germany. However, we assume that our theoretical framework could also explain the near universal phenomenon of international student mobility being socially selective in other European higher education systems. Second, we focussed on the intention to study abroad, meaning that social inequality regarding the actual realisation of stays abroad still needs to be examined more thoroughly. Third, we think that both theory development and higher education policy would benefit from a stronger integration of social inequality research and recent research on the role of contextual factors (defined by measures to support mobility at individual institutions, the availability of scholarships, etc.). Fourth, further research is needed on the consequences of social selectivity of international mobility on students’ later private and professional lives. Considering that international experience may be advantageous for students’ future lives, a socially stratified access it may transfer social inequality from the educational to the professional career.

For the time being, our results suggest a twofold approach to reduce the social selectivity of international student mobility. On the one hand, policy-makers should tackle obstacles deterring students in higher education from studying abroad. Our analyses confirm the negative effect of a (perceived) lack of funding opportunities for temporary mobility. This might be redressed by the extension of group-specific supporting schemes and more targeted information. Similarly, addressing underprivileged students’ fear of prolonging their studies through mobility (e.g. by pre-installing mobility windows in study curricula) and convincing them of the benefits of international mobility should raise their readiness to study abroad.

On the other hand, our results show that ad hoc measures targeting students in higher education are necessarily limited in their impact. As other studies have pointed out, remediating political measures need to address individuals early on in their educational careers. Early language learning and specifically a stay abroad during school seem to favour openness towards later international experiences. During a stay abroad, foreign language competence and a positive attitude towards other cultures are fostered. Moreover, international experiences during school help pupils to internalise that obstacles to mobility can be overcome. These competencies and experiences predispose students to study abroad later on. Thus, if social selectivity in access to study abroad periods shall be attenuated, more underprivileged pupils should be given mental and financial support for international mobility during their time at school.

Lörz, M., Netz, N., & Quast, H. (2015). Why do students from underprivileged families less often intend to study abroad? Higher Education, 1–22. SHARE