Reflections on the 2023 EAIE conference

This blog has been contributed by Mark Hertlein, Head of Global Engagement at City, University of London.

In late September I attended the 33rd Annual EAIE Conference and Exhibition in Rotterdam. Having last attended in 2018 it was fantastic to be back. My first impression was that it was bigger than I remember it. Turns out it was EAIE’s largest conference to date, with more than 6700 participants from over 2600 institutions, with over 100 countries represented.

Despite growing, the conference had not lost track of what makes it special – the vibrant, diverse and passionate community that powers it. EAIE is a member-led organisation and what unites its members is a shared belief in the transformative power of international education and its ability to bring together people from different backgrounds, foster understanding and ultimately make the world a better place. This was reflected in the title of this year’s conference, “Connecting Currents”.

Broadly speaking people attend the conference for two reasons. The first is to learn and share knowledge and expertise. This happens through practitioner led workshops, campfires, expert community events and poster displays. The second is to maintain and build relationships, both with individuals and with institutions. Both are equally valuable, although given this was my first overseas conference since the pandemic, it was the meetings with professional colleagues that proved most rewarding.

Having provided some background, I will share my reflections on the conference. I should start by saying that to a significant degree, what you get out of conference is shaped by what you go in with. This determines the sessions you choose to attend and the insights that resonate most strongly with you. From both a professional and academic perspective I am interested in the way in which universities can have a positive impact on and in the world. More specifically how, through their education, research and operations, universities can minimise the harm they do and maximise the good they do.

Taking the second of these points first, in advance of the conference the tension between international education and environmental sustainability was highlighted by CANIE, who through their #TravelwithCANIE initiative encouraged attendees to travel to Rotterdam as greenly as possible. For some this meant coming by train instead of flying, for others cycling and catching ferries. CANIE estimates this led to a saving of over 31 tons of CO2. Sustainability was also the theme of several conference sessions.

Looking at how universities can make a positive difference in the world, the opening plenary was inspirational, with Jahkini Bisselink and Hajar Yagkoubi sharing perspectives from Generation Z. I took away two key points. Firstly, leveraging the energy and passion of young people will be critical if we are to achieve a more sustainable and equitable future. Secondly, organisations can’t just talk the talk, they need to walk the walk. Whether as students, consumers or workers, Gen Z are choosing purpose-led organisations who genuinely live their values.

Due to meetings with partner universities, I only attended a handful of conference sessions (far fewer than I would have liked). There isn’t space here to provide detailed reflections on each, but what came across loudly in them all is the notion that to be impactful, collaboration needs to be at the heart of higher education. This includes collaboration within universities, between universities and between universities and their local communities and stakeholders. Solutions need to be informed and co-created.

So, what does this mean for London and the work of London Higher? One aspect of the conference I haven’t mentioned yet is the exhibition space. This is where educational institutions promote themselves. In some cases, institutions collaborate to form country zones. At a time when international education is increasingly competitive, having this sort of presence matters and shows ambition. Pre-pandemic, London had a stand at a couple of EAIE conferences. Not only did this raise the profile of London as a study destination, it also helped to build relationships between staff in London’s higher education institutions. These connections can be truly valuable and working together on a stand provides a great starting point.

This leads neatly onto my second point: the importance of collaboration both amongst London’s higher education institutions and between London’s higher education institutions and key stakeholders within London. Whether this is with a view to increasing access to higher education and the social mobility of London students; or raising awareness amongst London employers about the benefits of employing international students via the Graduate Route; or supporting social innovation and enterprise within local communities, collaboration is needed. I would even argue that finding solutions to the cost of living and accommodation challenge in London requires a collaborative approach.

In this respect London Higher has an important role in understanding the issues and opportunities facing the capital’s institutions, and London more widely, and in bringing together the various members of this ecosystem so that informed, joined up and forward-thinking approaches can be developed. As the Dutch hip hop artist Typhoon stated during the final conference plenary “What can I do to see the bigger picture and help others? That’s not possible without connection and holding space for others.”