International student exchange programmes as an effective way to reduce prejudice

Poland is a virtually mono-ethnic country, where people born outside its borders constitute only about 2.7% of the population.[1] Such small numbers of foreigners lead to Poles having significantly fewer friends and acquaintances among people with a different ethnic origin or religious affiliation than their fellow Europeans. According to the Eurobarometer 2009 study, only 25% of Poles claim to have at least one foreigner within their social circle – 44% associate with at least one person who adheres to a different religion than their own. The corresponding European averages are 57% and 64% respectively. The lack of opportunities for contact with people from other cultures comprises one of the reasons for the relatively high levels of prejudice observed among Poles. An excellent setting to test whether Poles will become more open towards foreigners if given the chance to meet them is provided by student exchange programmes.

In my recent research, supervised by Dr Michał Bilewicz, I focused on the Erasmus exchange programme which has been organised by the European Commission since 1987. Until the end of 2011, more than 2.2 million students from 33 countries (27 EU member states plus Island, Norway, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Croatia and Turkey) had participated. Poland has been taking part in the programme since 1998 and 120,147 Polish students have thus been given assistance to study abroad. Figure 1 illustrates more detailed statistics on Polish Erasmus participation.

It is quite apparent that international mobility stimulates scientific cooperation and the flow of ideas as well as of capital. Even more important, it may play a significant role in shaping a European identity that is based on openness towards diversity. That is why I decided to scrutinise possible outcomes of participating in the Erasmus programme with respect to the attitudes that Polish students display towards Muslim people. The choice of Muslims as a target group was motivated mainly by their being the largest immigrant minority in Europe which is subjected to very strong prejudice and discrimination. Even in Poland, where Muslims are practically non-existent (rough estimates circle around 10,000 to 20,000 people[2]) very strong anti-Muslim prejudice prevails. In 2010, there was a demonstration against the construction of a mosque and a cultural centre in Warsaw which elicited a lot of controversy and was followed by heated internet debates characterised by hate speech directed at Polish and European Muslims.


Figure 1. Number of Polish participants in the Erasmus exchange programme. Source:


For my research, I assumed that going to a country with a large Muslim minority, such as Germany, France or Great Britain, where it is more likely to actually meet a Muslim person and thereby confront one’s stereotypes with reality, may have a positive effect on attitudes towards Muslim people in general. This is the main premise of the contact hypothesis as formulated by Gordon Allport in 1954.[3] One hundred and fifty six students participated in the first part and 77 in the second part (retention: 49%) of the study. They filled in a questionnaire before going abroad and at the end of the first semester of their stay. The results indicate that participating in the Erasmus programme was associated with a significant decrease in social distance felt towards Muslims. This means that studying abroad made Polish students more ready to accept Muslim people than their co-workers, neighbours and friends (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. Changes of social distance felt towards Muslim people as a result of participating in the Erasmus student exchange programme.

Moreover, students declared to have had significantly more contact with Muslim people in comparison to when they were living in Poland. This contact led to a decrease in intergroup anxiety, that is the fear of negative consequences and unpleasant experiences aroused by the possibility of meeting members of negatively stereotyped groups. The decrease in anxiety in turn, led to more positive attitudes towards Muslims.

Other research on the results of student exchange programmes corroborates the ones outlined herein. Olga Visbal found that Colombian students coming to Germany developed more positive attitudes towards Germans.[4] In the Polish context, Magdalena Kuleta-Hulboj showed that participation in a Polish-Israeli exchange programme was associated with more positive mutual attitudes as well as prejudice reduction and increased knowledge about the other culture.[5]

Taking all these results into account, it is evident that student exchange programmes can play a very important role in promoting tolerance and countering right-wing policies of discrimination. It seems highly doubtful that people who were once immigrants to a foreign country themselves as exchange students will be prone to discriminate immigrants in their own country. What is more, in accordance with the deprovincialization hypothesis of Thomas Pettigrew, people who have an opportunity of living abroad tend to detach themselves from their own culture and acknowledge that the values they adhere to are by no means the only valid ones. [6] Thus, they become more open towards other cultures and more critical of their own.

Anna Stefaniak

[1]Vasileva, K. (11.07.2012). Nearly two-thirds of all foreigners living in EU Member States are citizens of countries outside the EU-27. Eurostat.Access:

[2]Marek, A., Skowron-Nalborczyk, A. (2005). Nie bój się islamu. Leksykon dla dziennikarzy. [Do not fear Islam: Lexicon for journalists] Warszawa: Towarzystwo”Więź”.

[3]Allport, G., (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

[4]Visbal, O. (2010). The erosion of stereotypes through intercultural exchange programes: Testing Pettigrew’s contact theory [online](Pracadoktorska, Universität Hamburg). Dostęp:

[5]Kuleta-Hulboj, M. (2009). Pamięć – edukacja – dialog. Studium przypadku polsko-izraelskiej wymiany młodzieży. Toruń: Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek.

[6]Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology,49 ,65-85.

Categories Analyses, News, Poland | Tags: | Posted on March 1, 2013

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