This is an editorial piece written by Alexej Parchomenko as part of the work as an UArctic intern at the UiT-the Arctic University of Tromsø, Campus Alta.

It has become a normal phenomenon. In a time when governments turn every coin over twice, there is unbroken support to fund the thousands of students who leave their homes to discover a new world.

Everyone probably knows this feeling, which comes and develops slowly from booking the ticket, packing the bag and landing in a new, exciting place. Each of these steps gives you energy for the long way and the challenges in front. In fact, more and more students use this chance. According to UNECSO, around 3.5 million students are on exchange each year and the numbers are expected to double until 2020.

While the motivation to search for a program comes from the student, financial and coordination, support comes from universities, their cooperation networks, like the UArctic and its north2north exchange program. Certainly, there is a variety of possibilities and while north2north has its special focus on the circumpolar north, other programs like Nordplus and Erasmus+ have different approaches. What they all have in common is the strong government support, which allows the universities to cooperate, and students, staff and interns to study, travel and stay in a new country.  

The motives behind the extensive government support for education exchange are manifold. Some are easy to measure, but most are not. The most prominent trains of thought go something like that: Countries provide a grant for outgoing students in the expectation that the student will return and bring the experience gained back to his home country. At the same time, there is support for incoming students from other countries. Part of that rationale is that every student spends money during his stay and generates revenue and taxes in the host country. Depending on the duration of the stay, the person builds a network of people, which increases the chance of staying in the host country. Both approaches are usually interwoven and provide a broad base for collaboration, when the students graduate and start working. This view is narrow, but reflects on the economic motives.

From the university perspective, the goals mentioned have only low-priority. Instead, the International Association of Universities (IAU) Survey shows that most important benefits are improved academic quality and internationally oriented students and staff. Everyone, who experienced an international exchange, knows how difficult, even impossible it is to bring everything learned to the point when people ask, how it was and what the person has learned. Explanations become broad and unspecific and concentrate on special moments. It shows that learning from personal interaction, in a new cultural environment, is much more, than what more traditional education offers. It is impossible to gain intercultural experience in such a way from books. Usually there is no question about that, but measuring the benefits is impregnated in the government`s fabric, latest when someone has to account for the spending and the results achieved.

An attempt to account is to undertake a survey and looking at the IAU Survey, which includes higher education institutions from 95 countries, the result is clear. Ninety-six per cent of respondents see more benefits than risks from higher education exchange. Still, 70 percent agree that risks do exist. Universities view commercialization and commodification of education programs as the highest risk, followed by higher numbers of low-quality providers, so called “degree-mills”. Only third, comes the risk of brain drain, which is associated with the outflow of talents to foreign universities and companies. The risk ranking differs among countries and taking these concerns seriously is a way forward to stable and long-term collaboration.

In fact, we live in a world where we cannot afford not to collaborate. Maybe it is like with flood control. The cost seems high and most of the time the benefits are invisible. Everyone knows that the next flood will come and statistically it is a fact. Despite that, people see only the costs. However, one day all the efforts become visible and suddenly opinion shifts. International exchange has parts of this picture. What flood control is in natural disaster management can become international exchange in peacemaking. The difference is that the “dam” is alive, colorful and shares its stories, through families and friends and it entails so much more than one can try to account for on paper.