Laila Benjnouh, Susanne Suhr Andersen, UDS (Denmark)

Almost all international mobility and cooperation activities of Nordic higher education institutions (HEIs) are built on formal partnership agreements. Therefore, we find it interesting to analyse how the partnership agreements are described in the applications for an Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE). Having said this, it is difficult to generalise about partnerships, how they come about, how they are monitored, what the geographical priorities are and what approaches HEIs have in setting them up. A review of the section C of the ECHE applications which deals with partnerships revealed the following trends:

What characterises Erasmus partnership agreements?

The possibility to apply for funding for mobility activities through the Erasmus programme has existed for more than 25 years.  Originally, this could be done through Erasmus agreements between the involved HEIs but also as free movers.  At the beginning of this century, the free mover scheme within the Erasmus programme was ended, which meant that all exchanges had to go through formal Erasmus partnership agreements. As a result, a large number of agreements at that time were initiated by individual requests from students and staff, and many of these agreements are still in force in the institutions today.  One might therefore ask whether historical and Erasmus programme-related issues have had an influence on the way HEIs still work with Erasmus partnership agreements?

Furthermore, external factors can also play a role in the differences between how institutions enter into Erasmus partnership agreements. In Denmark and some of the other Nordic countries, there has been a great focus on achieving balance between ingoing and outgoing mobility activities.  This fact is usually mentioned in cases in which institutions have set up centralised key criteria for entering into Erasmus partnership agreements. In addition, institutions in Denmark also receive a national internationalisation grant per mobility activity. Do external factors such as economic incentives play a role in the way the institutions cooperate as well as in their internal procedures to enter into Erasmus partnership agreements?

The analysis of the ECHE applications shows that many of the HEIs consider Erasmus mobility activities to be different from other international cooperation activities. Is Erasmus student and staff mobility at these institutions not as integral a part of the institutions' internationalisation strategies as the international activities generated by other partnership agreements? Do the Erasmus mobility activities live their own life in the Nordic HEIs?

Partnership agreements

In part C of the ECHE application institutions are asked to describe the following:

….The structure at your institution for the implementation and organization of European and international mobility…. The institutional procedure for the approval and monitoring of inter-institutional agreements for study and teaching mobility and/or learning agreements in case of traineeships.

Our analysis is based on all Danish and Icelandic ECHE documents and a selected number of ECHE applications from Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Two types of partnership agreements

In the general description of partnership agreements and in their descriptions of internal procedures about entering into partnership agreements and the monitoring processes, many HEIs distinguish between Erasmus partnership agreements and other types of international cooperation, such as for example strategic partnership agreements or memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with institutions outside of Europe.

The analysis of the ECHE documents clearly shows that in many cases Erasmus partnership agreements are not regarded in the same way as other types of agreements in the HEIs' international strategies.

In cases in which HEIs describe two types of agreements, the Erasmus mobility agreements are often described as agreements under the auspices of cooperation at faculty, department and programme level. In cases in which Erasmus mobility agreements are mentioned as being used across the entire institution, the agreements are more often made centrally and signed by the rector. These faculty-wide Erasmus agreements are also more often discussed as being on an equal footing with other types of cooperation agreements, such as MOUs.

 The examples below illustrate this procedure:

...Erasmus agreements are approved signed and monitored by the university's LLP coordinator, non-Erasmus departmental agreements by the head of department, faculty-wide non-Erasmus agreements by the dean of the faculty and university-wide agreements by the vice-chancellor... (Uppsala University, SE).

…When the agreements are university wide open to all faculties it is the Rector that usually signs the agreements. Most of the Erasmus agreements are concerning one or more subjects in one faculty/school of the University. In that case it is the head of the faculty/school that signs the agreements...' (University of Iceland, IS).

…Faculties sign agreements in their disciplines...MOU's, Interfaculty and agreements covering all fields are signed by Rector, Vice rector or Head of IRO... (University of Turku, FI).

…Erasmus agreements are signed by the head of department by authority of the Rector. Exchange agreements and MOUs outside Erasmus are signed by Rector… (University of Oslo, NO).

In the Nordic countries, there are some examples in which institutions have set out some general criteria for entering into partnership agreements to ensure both the quality of the agreements and that the expected outcomes of the agreement are consistent with the institution's overall strategy. In the following you will find some examples supporting this procedure.

…The University has agreed on university wide guidelines for entering into inter-institutional agreements within the Erasmus Programme...' (University of Copenhagen, DK).

…In the university's internationalization strategy there are guidelines and criteria for international cooperation and agreements… (Stockholm University, SE).

…BI has developed a guideline/procedure for international agreements that clearly defines the role of the Academic line and the Administrative line as well as a check list for international partners that is used for the identification of new partners and evaluation of existing partners… (BI Norwegian Business School, NO).

 ...has an institutional level set of quality criteria for mobility activities: partnerships and agreements are monitored on basis of these criteria and the criteria are also used when new partnerships are considered… (Haga-Helia University of Applied Science, FI).

Different types of procedures for entering into partnership agreements

The procedures on how HEIs enter into new partnership agreements are usually related to how they operate with the two types of partnership agreements described above. We will try to describe the HEIs' approach when entering into partnership agreements in general, and in the following part we do not distinguish between Erasmus mobility agreements and other types of partnership agreements.

Bottom-up approach

When HEIs use the ‘bottom-up approach' the partnership agreements are initiated, concluded and signed at programme, faculty and department level at the institution.

Top-down approach

Partnership agreements are concluded at the central level and are also administered there. The initiative to enter into a new partnership agreement can, for example, come from an individual teacher, but the final decision about concluding the agreement or not is made centrally. It is often the director of the international office or a person responsible for internationalisation at the institution who signs the partnership agreement.

Neither bottom-up (decentralised approach) nor top-down (centralised approach)

In these cases institutions make an effort to describe how the procedure for entering into partnership agreements works across the entire institution and how both the central and decentralised parts of the institution are responsible for the agreement.

Table 1

Country and number of Erasmus Charters for Higher Education Top-Down Approach Bottom-Up Approach Neither Bottom-Up nor Top-Down Approach
Finland (27) 12 6 9
Iceland (7) 2 2 3
Norway (24) 9 10 5
Sweden (20) 8 5 7
Denmark (40) 24 6 10

Table 1 shows how the Nordic higher education institutions describe the way they enter into new partnership agreements in the ECHE document. In the following we will describe some of the differences between the approaches used in the Nordic countries:

The table indicates that Denmark has the most centralised approach to concluding partnership agreements, but the table also shows that Finnish and Swedish institutions use the centralised approach more compared to, for example, Iceland and Norway.

We find it interesting that the Danish institutions emphasise the top-down approach more often than institutions in the other Nordic countries. As mentioned earlier, this might be due to the fact that in recent years, there has been a strong focus on the balancing of ingoing and outgoing mobility activities in Denmark. Danish institutions with an imbalance between incoming and outgoing student mobility (more incoming than outgoing) have had their national government grant reduced accordingly. This economic incentive might very well have resulted in a more centralised approach in Denmark regarding partnership agreements.

As the table also shows, many Norwegian institutions are still characterised by a bottom-up approach, despite more than a decade of national policy advocating a more strategic and centrally “anchored” approach to international cooperation, including student mobility. On the other hand, cooperation might be well anchored at department or faculty level, which might be the most appropriate system, especially for large institutions.

Icelandic institutions are quite balanced when it comes to bottom-up/top-down approach.  Having said this, while only two institutions require the rector to sign all inter-institutional agreements, others require that both the head of the faculty/department and the international coordinator sign the agreement in most cases.

Monitoring of partnership agreements

The descriptions of monitoring of the partnership agreements are in most cases very vague in the ECHE applications, and mostly they only mention the employee who is responsible for the monitoring.

In cases in which a specific monitoring procedure is described, it is often in conjunction with the Annual Review. If a HEI has set specific criteria for entering into partnership agreements as described above, these criteria are occasionally mentioned as being used in the monitoring of agreements.

However, an analysis of the descriptions provided in the ECHE applications shows a few dissimilarities in the monitoring of partnership agreements between the Nordic countries:

The descriptions of the Finnish and Norwegian monitoring procedures show that the central administration is more often involved in this procedure than, for example, in Sweden and Denmark. In Iceland, monitoring takes place in the international office in the majority of cases while rectors/heads of faculty/departments mostly sign these agreements.

We also found that in Finland, Iceland and Sweden the same individual is more often responsible both for partnership agreements and their monitoring than in Norway and Denmark. We therefore suggest that during the national monitoring of ECHE in Norway and Denmark the National Agency could take up the issue of the lack of convergence in responsibility for entering into partnership agreements and their monitoring. This is important to make sure that the findings made during monitoring of partnership agreements will be taken into consideration when agreements are renewed at institutions.

Geographical priorities

Even though there are many similarities between the Nordic Higher Education Institutions, we can still conclude from table 1 that the Nordic HEIs have a variety of different approaches to how they actually work with partnership agreements and monitoring. Therefore, we find it interesting to see if there are any similarities in the geographical priorities between the Nordic countries and the institutions when they enter into agreements with new partner institutions.

Hence, the purpose of this part is to map the prioritised geographical areas within the Nordic higher education institutions. The analysis is based on the descriptions of the institutions in part D of the ECHE application - Erasmus Policy Statement (Overall Strategy). In the policy statement, the HEIs are asked to answer the following question: 'in which geographical areas do you choose your partners'?

We have analysed all the policy statements in order to find out which regions the higher education institutions are cooperating with or which regions are of interest and a priority to them. Please note that the Norwegian data is based on a 90% sample.

The table below compares the Nordic countries and geographical priority areas most frequently mentioned in the ECHE policy statement.

Table 2

  Sweden Norway Finland Iceland Denmark
Europe / EU 85,7 % 92 % 87,5 % 86 % 92,5 %
Nordic countries 38 % 48 % 17,5 % 43 % 32,5 %
North America 40,4 % 52 % 35 % 71 % 40 %
Asia 61,9 % 16 % 40 % 43 % 25 %
Africa 38 % 36 % 40 % 0 20 %
Latin America 35,7 % 16 % 30 % 29 % 15 %
Australia/Oceania 19 % 16 % 12,5 % 29 % 15 %
Russia 7,1 % 24 % 60 % 0 5 %
BRIC(S) 11,9 % 52 % 27,5 % 0 15 %
Global South [1] 26,1 % 24 % 12,5 % 0 10 %
Middle East 0 0 0 0 5 %
Number of Institutions 42 25 40 7 40


Table 2 indicates that there are some similarities among the geographical areas the Nordic HEIs prioritise. This said, the table also shows that many of the HEIs have different geographical priorities when they choose their partners. In the following, we will try to describe some of the tendencies and findings regarding geographical priorities within the Nordic higher education institutions:

  • Table 2 clearly shows that Europe is a very important geographical area for all the Nordic HEIs when it comes to entering into partnership agreements. Approximately 90% of the HEIs focus on Europe, which makes Europe a priority area of cooperation for all the Nordic countries. Even though there is no doubt that Europe is important, one should also note that these findings are from ECHE applications, which are applications for European funding. In this context, it is understandable that HEIs emphasise Europe and this might have had some influence on the result. 
  • In contrast to all the other Nordic countries, Finland has prioritised Russia as a key area of cooperation when entering into partnership agreements. In fact, Russia is the country which Finnish HEIs mention the most frequently as the country they either have an established cooperation with or are willing to invest more in. This is coherent with the Finnish national strategy, in which Russia is set as a national priority in the strategy for internationalisation of higher education institutions in Finland 2009-2015:

Taking into consideration Finland's geographical location, Russia's increasing role as a market area and its importance as a country of culture and science requires special attention. The Government Programme has committed to the promotion of Russia competence. Many polytechnics and universities have adopted Russia cooperation as one of the focus areas of their activities. There is a good basis for Russia competence in Finnish higher education institutions... [2]

  • It is also interesting to see that a large number of HEIs in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland have set the Nordic region as a geographical priority area. However, only very few Finnish HEIs have prioritised this region.
  • North America is also an area of interest for all the Nordic countries; nevertheless, this area is particularly important to Iceland. The reason for the strong interest in North America in Iceland is historical.  Icelandic students have traditionally gone abroad to study either in the Nordic countries or in North America.  Many faculty members at Icelandic HEIs are educated in North America and thus have personal and professional links with faculties at individual institutions.
  • As shown in table 2, we can also conclude that the Nordic HEIs do not prioritise the Middle East at all as a geographical area; however, it is still remarkable that only Danish institutions actually mention this area.
  • Approximately 50% of the Norwegian HEIs have the BRICS countries as a geographical priority when entering into partnerships. This number is very large compared to the other Nordic institutions. In Norway, the BRICS countries are prioritised in national strategies for bilateral education and research cooperation, as five out of eight countries (the other three are Canada, Japan and the United States). We can conclude that this has had an influence on the way the Norwegian HEIs set their geographical priorities.

However, on the other hand it is very interesting to see that only 15% of the Danish HEIs mention the BRICS countries. In May 2012, the Danish government launched an overall growth market strategy, together with country specific strategies for Brazil, Russia, India and China. Furthermore, the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science has also introduced a programme called ‘top talent' in China, Brazil and India [3]. The aim of the programme is to market Danish education in these countries and recruit talented students. With a strong national focus on the BRICS countries, it is rather surprising that only 15% of the Danish HEIs have prioritised this geographical area in their ECHE applications.

  • Compared to the other Nordic countries, Swedish HEIs consider Asia more as a high priority area.  Even though Asia is not a national priority in Sweden, it is interesting to note that the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency supports university cooperation within education and research, and this support is limited to countries which are on the DAC list of OECD and a part of the support is limited to the 13 most prioritised countries for development cooperation. Three of these countries are in Asia (Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar) [4].
  • Moreover, table 2 specifies that many of the Nordic HEIs except for those in Iceland are interested in partnership cooperation in the Global South and in Africa.
  • The single country mentioned most often in the Danish ECHE policy statements is China. This is consistent with the Danish national strategy for internationalisation of higher education, which has a great emphasis on China. In addition, the Danish innovation centre in China was one of the first to be established, out of the now existing six centres.  Furthermore, there is extensive cooperation between all eight Danish universities and Chinese universities through Danish SINO cooperation.
  • Out of the 11 geographical areas listed, Iceland only indicates interest/cooperation in six areas.  This is due to the small size of the institutions, historical connections (or lack thereof) and perhaps the fact that there is no national internationalisation strategy in place in Iceland for Icelandic higher education institutions.
  • Finally, table 2 also shows that there are some new emerging geographical areas of interest within the Nordic HEIs, such as the BRICS, Asia and Africa.

Final reflections

The analysis of the ECHE applications in the Nordic countries shows that even though there are many similarities among the Nordic higher education institutions, our analysis of the ECHE partnership section (Part C) indicated that the Nordic HEIs have a variety of approaches to how they actually establish partnership agreements and carry out monitoring. In general, we found that the Nordic HEIs very often differentiate between Erasmus partnership agreements and other types of international cooperation agreements, such as strategic partnerships and MOUs. This could be an issue for the Nordic National Agencies to take up during monitoring visits at the HEIs, and to try to find out why this difference exists and if or how the Erasmus partnership agreements are linked with the international strategies of the institutions. Furthermore, we found that there was a lack of convergence in responsibilities for partnership agreements and monitoring, especially in Denmark and Norway. In general, this could also be a point of attention for the National Agencies during monitoring visits.

Moreover, we studied the Erasmus Policy Statement in order to find out which geographical areas are prioritised in the Nordic HEIs. Overall, the analysis shows that the geographical areas the Nordic HEIs prioritise tend to be quite different. We found that, for example, national internationalisation strategies and the location of a country have an influence on which geographical areas institutions prioritise. Nevertheless, there was a clear tendency for HEIs in all the Nordic countries to prioritise Europe the most when establishing new partnership agreements. Whilst the area is clearly important, we also believe that because the ECHE is an application for EU funding this might have had some influence on the result.

The new Erasmus+ programme includes International Credit Mobility in partner countries – mobility outside of Europe. When HEIs apply for funding for the International Credit Mobility, they have to justify and reflect on the partnerships in a more strategic manner. With this new opportunity in the Erasmus+ programme, it is going to be very interesting to see how the Erasmus partnership agreements will develop during the programme period, and if this will have an influence on how the HEIs work with the Erasmus partnership agreements and the overall strategies and priorities of the Nordic HEIs.

[1] including also 3rd countries, developing countries, less developed countries


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