Anyone who’s ever been to an international higher education conference will tell you what an enriching experience it is (and how exhausting it is, but we’ll come back to that later). This year’s European Association of International Education (EAIE) conference was themed ‘A mosaic of cultures’ – appropriately capturing what study, work and volunteer abroad can open our minds to. Our Go International and European Engagement teams were there, promoting the UK’s engagement, and letting people know how to get involved with our goal to double outward student mobility.
What better group to do that with? EAIE’s conference brought together some 7,000 university professionals from across Europe and beyond. All the attendees, including us, want to learn and apply good practice to increase global engagement. The UK’s approach to growing outward student mobility always garners huge interest, and we love sharing what we’ve been up to and learning from others. Since our first EAIE in 2014, we’ve become increasingly embedded into the conference, and 2017 we were more engaged than ever.
The UK and EAIE
It is impossible to go to any higher education event without hearing ‘Brexit’. Unsurprisingly, this was a hot topic at EAIE. Step in Anne-May Janssen, Universities UK International’s (UUKi) Head of European Engagement. Anne-May spoke about the implications of EU exit negotiations on engagement between universities in the UK and other EU states. More specifically, she considered what this means for the employability of our future graduates, highlighting skills like ‘tolerance of ambiguities’ which are often enhanced or discovered through study abroad.
Outside of this session, I found it reassuring that when I spoke with EAIE colleagues from across the EU, that not one hinted that they would stop working with the UK after Brexit. If anything, they were even more committed to building and maintaining effective relationships with our universities.
In over a decade of attending higher education conferences, EAIE is the only event where I have regularly experienced queues to speak to poster presenters. It goes without saying, then, that our very own Catriona Hanks, Outward Student Mobility - Policy Lead, was in high demand during the poster session on Thursday morning. Catriona delivered a poster about outward mobility statistics which shows that, consistently across three years of analysis, students who were mobile during their studies graduated with better degrees than their non-mobile counterparts, and with better employment outcomes.
Within that, students from less advantaged groups who were mobile have even more pronounced outcomes. Which is why we’re doing all that we can to share the outputs of our Erasmus funded project which Katie Allinson is working on – the focus of our third EAIE contribution.
Katie convened a session with Anders Ahlstrand from the Swedish Council for Higher Education and Ivanna D’Arcy from the University of Limerick. They all offered tips about increasing participation in outward student mobility across all student groups. The importance of this work across Europe was clear in the session’s strong turnout - despite it being on a Friday morning after a hectic four days of conference activity.
It doesn’t stop there
You might think that was enough to keep us on our toes, but with meetings rolling from 8am until 11pm most days, EAIE has a magical energy that keeps you going. Part of that is because of the quality of content – not just UUKi’s session contributions (admittedly I am biased, but our team did represent wonderfully) but the 100+ other workshops and receptions. And, more flamenco than you can tap those toes to.
For me, there were bookends to the conference which were truly impactful:
The opening plenary, where Hywel Ceri-Jones and Alan Smith were honoured with the Constance Meldrum Award for Vision and Leadership for their roles in creating Erasmus.
On this, Erasmus’ 30th birthday, it is quite astounding for those of us in study abroad to think of a time when that framework wasn’t in place. It has facilitated effective partnerships across our universities and given more than 9 million students the chance to broaden their horizons through international experience.
Hearing Hywel and Alan reflection on the Erasmus journey was emotional. The importance of teamwork in making Erasmus work, and that Alan still uses his Erasmus backpack when hiking, shows a robust and long-lasting legacy.
The conference concluded spectacularly with Taiye Selasi’s closing address. EAIE trailed her as an “impassioned writer and photographer” - they delivered an enigmatic speaker who reminded the room of their own impassioned commitment to internationalisation and education.
Taiye’s call for us to stop thinking within boundaries and recognise that we are in fact the sum of a multitude of local experiences reminded all of us why we do what we do. Why engaging with the world without limiting ourselves to country constructs changes the world for the better. And why making sure everyone can access those opportunities is so important.
We, the audience, became the impassioned, with a full five minutes standing ovation for Taiye.
And that is what the EAIE conference itself does – takes an already impassioned community and through mutual respect and shared learning, encourages that community to raise its game yet further. We will continue to do that within the UK, but always looking to our friends world wide, and without boundaries, to make sure that we and the students we serve can be international and successful.