Education minister wants one in three students to study abroad


By 2020, one in three graduates from higher education will have had some overseas experience – that’s the goal of a new action plan for “academic mobility” recently approved by the government of Flanders. The programme, called Brains on the Move, goes further than the EU’s ambitious plans to reach 20% of students.

Minister presents “Brains on the Move” action plan for higher education

“The world is globalising,” says Pascal Smet. “Whether you’re for it or against it, it’s a fact you can’t get around.”

That’s why the Flemish education minister has introduced a plan for academic mobility – getting students outside of Flanders for part of their education, whether it’s elsewhere in Europe or across the globe in China.

“International mobility in work and education is going to be extremely important in the evolution of this new global society. That mobility is very important when you train a young person, when you try to develop in them a strong personality, when you provide them with skills and knowledge.”

The goal is that by 2020 at least one in three students should have some foreign experience, “in the broadest sense of the term,” he says. “That could be Erasmus, or internships or something else entirely.”  The experience will help prepare them, the minister says for the real world that’s to follow. “There’s a strong possibility they’ll make international contacts later in a work environment or come across other cultures. There’s a good chance they might go work in another country or find a foreign partner or work for a company that has an international identity, even if they themselves never leave Flanders. So that international experience is crucially important in preparing a young person for the future.”

Not only should the multi-year plan ensure that one in three graduates has some international experience by the end of their studies, it also includes a provision that 33% of those students should come from a less-advantaged background. “Everyone in society should be able to benefit.”

New recognition procedure for diplomas

He’s also not content to restrict the students to Europe. “We think the whole world should be an option. That’s why we’ve signed scholarship agreements with, for instance, China and Morocco and shortly also with Brazil. That way we create more opportunities for our people here in Flanders.”

There's a language barrier which makes it important for us to introduce more English

- Pascal Smet

The mobility programme, though, works both ways: It will increase the numbers of foreign students coming to study in Flanders. “That’s one of the reasons we’ll be going to Brazil in the autumn vacation. They have a programme to ensure that a large number of young Brazilians go off to study in other countries. And that’s something we need to be part of. People who come to study here get to know the country, and maybe later on, they’ll be open to doing business with you.”

One of the main questions relating to academic mobility involves the recognition of diplomas: If a foreign student holds a national diploma of completion of secondary education, for example, does that diploma have the same value as a similar qualification here? Recognition takes place at two levels: formal equivalence, which says that one diploma is of the same level as another, and complete equivalence, where not only the level of the diploma but the content of the training is the same. In the vast majority of cases, formal equivalence is sufficient.

The government plans to do two things: speed up the recognition procedure for diplomas by giving the job to panels of experts rather than the voluntary groups who carry out the investigations at present; and attach a fee to the procedure. The prices will range from €90 for a recognition of formal equivalence to €300 for complete recognition of a doctorate, rising to €500 for the fast-track option. Certain groups will be exempt from payment such as those on low incomes, the unemployed seeking work through the VDAB and those going through an integration process.

“On top of that, we will also ensure the procedure is faster,” says Smet. “In principle, all the steps should be completed within three months.”

The changes to the procedure have been welcomed by Brussels’ Minorities Forum. “We’re pleased to see that the recognition of diplomas can still be free of charge,” director Naima Charkaoui said. “The more highly educated migrant has the most difficulty in finding a job at the right level. We regularly see cases of doctors or engineers forced to work as cleaners or taxi drivers.”

More international appeal

According to recent figures, half of all migrants from outside the EU are currently working at a level below their qualifications.

There’s a language barrier, of course

- Pascal Smet

Students coming here to study, however, will soon be charged more for tuition. Paradoxically, it will make Flemish schools more appealing internationally, according to Smet. “We noticed when we visited China that, because our universities are open to everyone and are relatively well-priced, they have the impression that they’re not very good. That’s why the universities and I have agreed that we should raise registration fees for citizens of countries outside the European Economic Area. We think that will make us more appealing and help us to become better known.”

Finally, another aim of the mobility programme will be to encourage more Flemish students to study outside Europe. At present, Spain remains the most popular destination for an Erasmus period, followed by Germany, France and the Netherlands. Other parts of the world lag far behind.

“There’s a language barrier, of course, which is why it’s so important for us to introduce more English into our education system,” Smet says. “But part of our plan does include encouragement for them to spend some time in places like China, Hong Kong and other countries. And if they can grow up here using more English and later on have a better command of English, that will make it a lot easier for them.”

Educational system

The Flemish educational system is divided into two levels: primary (age six to 12) and secondary school (12 to 18). Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 18.
Types - There are three educational networks in Flanders: the Flemish Community’s GO! network, and publicly funded education – either publicly or privately run.
Not enough space - In recent years, Flemish schools have been struggling with persistent teacher shortages and a growing lack of school spaces.
No tuition fees - Nursery, primary and secondary school are free in Flanders.

million school-going children in 2013


million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013


percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma