The Erasmus+ programme by the European Union was launched decades ago to enhance student mobility in Europe. The programme is still known for student exchange at all educational levels, but it also includes interesting and diverse research and development projects. The Erasmus+ Capacity Building programme funds projects with the aim to develop and internationalise universities located outside the European Union.
As the focus of the Erasmus+ Capacity Building projects is on supporting universities, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it is important to consider what the European universities gain from taking part in them.
We, the authors of this blog have been involved in several Erasmus+ projects over the years such as the TOURIST project in South-East Asia (Thailand and Vietnam), the ENCORE project with partners from Bhutan, Nepal and Laos, and the SUCSESS project in South Africa (with three universities in the RSA: University of Johannesburg, University of Pretoria and University of Zululand).
In the following, we would like to share our insights on the gains for both students and staff of the European universities taking part in Erasmus+ projects.
Our students benefit both directly and indirectly
Usually, research and development projects involve just the academic staff, but students can be active contributors, too. Students are the main stakeholders of any university and thus it is important to integrate the student perspective already when planning a project. When students are considered from the start, they will benefit directly from the project. According to our experiences, bringing in students to complete tasks in the projects offers an opportunity for all project stakeholders to learn more.
Over the years we have offered students possibilities to complete different assignments and semester projects in the Erasmus+ projects. For example, in our former course, Responsible development of tourism destinations, students studied challenges related to Asian tourism with a case-based learning approach.
This autumn, students planned and implemented a webinar and an online workshop for the SUCSESS project. Thus, bringing in lecturers and students from partner schools together to learn and discuss issues relating to employability and the skills required in the future of work.
Several students have also had their theses commissioned by our projects. The thesis topics have ranged from studies about sustainable tourism in Thailand to safety issues related to business travel in South Africa.
Indirectly students benefit from Erasmus+ projects as the project training sessions require the trainers (i.e., us) to prepare materials as lecture slides, canvases for workshops etc. Material that can later be used in teaching.
For the training sessions in the TOURIST project, we developed extensive lecture materials about sustainable tourism along with a useful tourism impact canvas, both of which we have used in our own courses since then. For the SUCSESS project, we interviewed colleagues, commissioners and students about inquiry learning and the Design Sprint to gain deeper understanding of their points of view. We have been able to use the data for several articles and for improving course contents already.
The hours spent training and testing the materials also pay off and contribute to learning on our home turf. Moreover, the discussions with international colleagues have given us insights that we also have brought into our classes. It has also been rewarding to see how our project partners have started to test our tools and methods in their classrooms, like the University of Johannesburg did with Design Sprint recently.
Academic staff gets possibilities for professional growth
The main benefit of projects is that we get to meet new people, join a wider academic community and learn about the topic of the Erasmus+ project. As relationships for academic collaboration are mostly personal, we have found new people to work with for future research projects with the wider social circle and network of colleagues.
We also want to highlight, that even though the quality of teaching at Haaga-Helia is on a high level, and even though all senior lecturers have formal teacher qualifications, there are a lot of interesting things happening all over the world to learn from.
International projects are not just work without challenges. The lack of communication, different perceptions of time, misunderstanding of instructions and a huge amount of bureaucracy, can also create stress and even restless nights. However, by keeping an open mind and learning from mistakes, as well as by focusing on solutions instead of obstacles, the objectives of the project are usually reached in the end.
Indeed, all projects can be seen as journeys for learning about people, organisations, project management and the context of the project itself. Working with partners in capacity building projects outside of Europe is rewarding and offers ample opportunities for both personal and professional growth. Finnish universities gain a lot, even if the focus for development is elsewhere. Together we can work for a better future!