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Commerce and knowledge sharing at the EAIE conference

‘Every year is the biggest’ is an illustrative phrase that can encapsulate the European Association for International Education, or EAIE 26th Annual Conference, which was held in September 2014 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Regardless of the world economic crisis, budget cuts and similar financial hardships, the EAIE can boast one of their biggest annual conferences. The event brought together more than 5,000 participants from 94 countries with 190 exhibitors. It is parallel to the NAFSA conference and expo in the United States.

Changes that are occurring within the EAIE and at its main annual event are a good proxy of broader transformations in higher education – in short, the increasing marketisation of the sector.

International education is now an industry, as noted two years ago by Hans de Wit. What, then, is so striking about this event and what makes it different from the past?

EAIE is a non-profit, member-led organisation, which from not that long ago could be described as a ‘club of friends’. It was an association mainly comprising professionals dealing with student exchange and mobility who would meet in premises of different European universities that would host and support them.

EAIE’s event has grown to a professionalised conference and exhibition organised outside of universities, covering a broad range of international education activities.

I attended the conference as part of my own research. EAIE’s conference is a fruitful way to think about my doctoral project, which is on how the higher education sector is becoming an ‘industry’ unto itself.

International higher education as an industry

For some, international education is considered big business.

For example, the United Kingdom estimates that the educational services it exports are worth £17.5 billion (US$28 billion); the United States says that international students contribute US$24.7 billion to the US economy; and Australia considers education to be its fourth largest export sector.

However, what is often forgotten is that it is not just about universities, tuition fees and attendant student spending, but a whole range of new markets across the field.

And this is what was clearly seen at EAIE’s 26th Annual Conference. Around a quarter of the 190 exhibitors were private companies selling services and products to universities.

The exhibition part of the conference is transformed from information sharing between universities in different countries to one where promotion and selling between diversified actors is the new norm.

What is also worth noting is who is leading in these transformations. Almost half of the exhibitors came from only five countries – the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and France.

To look at it differently, around 50% of exhibitors came from the geographic region of Europe, a bit more than 20% came from the US and Canada, and 10% from Asia. Africa was least represented, with only around 2% of exhibitors.

Keeping in mind that this was a European event, it is nevertheless important to see that countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand are significantly present in the hitherto West- or European-dominated higher education industry. However, the rise of Asian and South American countries is much more noticeable.

EAIE’s transformation

EAIE as an organisation has adapted to the changes in the higher education sector, although with some internal struggles and frictions.

The commercial approach – like promoting and selling services, accepting sponsorships and sponsor visibility, organising parties and shows and similar trends that were increasingly appearing at annual conferences – did not always sit well within EAIE. The organisation thus had to find a balance between information sharing and networking and services promotion.

The conference is increasingly highly professionalised in its themes, facilities and infrastructure. The site in Prague was carefully designed to stimulate the smooth flow of people through the exhibition, the conference sessions and meeting or networking spots.

The space was comfortable, wireless internet was ensured and sponsored by Study Poland, there were no serious queuing issues, refreshments were at hand and 5,000 people could feel comfortable.

Noticed also was a sort of repositioning of EAIE membership going on. As the majority of conference participants were not members, EAIE tried to make it very visible that being a member is worth the cost.

A special lounge – walled off behind glass – for members only, with refreshments, comfortable sofas and massages was located right next to the main entrance so that all participants could see inside the space and hopefully wished to be in there.

Last, but not least, what is a crucial change is that in the EAIE’s structures there is a mixture of people who come from universities as well as from private companies.

Many of EAIE’s key figures are ‘hybrids’ in the sense that they used to work for a university and now either have their own companies and consultancies or work for such companies.

EAIE as an organisation had internal discussions as to whether this was appropriate and there were some members who wanted to create special internal spaces in EAIE to keep private actors separate from other membership. The final decision rejected this separation.

Private companies are now allowed to be members across EAIE’s internal structures. This is so because the field of international education is considered to encompass all of these actors – those with educational purposes, strictly speaking, as well as those with profit-making or support-service missions.

And the sector, as a consequence, is now quite fluid and mixed.

Service or a show?

‘Education is Great – Britain’, ‘Study in Sweden: Don’t just pick a place, pick a future’, ‘Study & be successful – Poland’, ‘Russia goes global’ and so on are just a few of the slogans that a participant encounters when she walks around the EAIE conference stands.

This is then supplemented with attractions like tastings of national foods, drinks, sweepstakes, receptions and other activities. It seems the limits of what is acceptable at a higher education event have drastically changed and now anything that attracts attention is tolerated.

Private companies are by no means lagging behind. Meeting up with potential clients, promoting their services, presenting the results of their research in higher education and hosting social gatherings are now the norm.

An example is the launching of research findings from a study into 500 top universities by Study Portals, the British Council and the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS. They attracted attention at the event as well as via related Twitter feeds.

Another example was a big party on the second day of the conference in a nightclub hosted by QS and IELTS with dancing and free drinks throughout the night for everybody who attended. By now the party has earned a reputation from previous years and, consequently, popularity and impatient expectation from the audience.

These occasions are clearly modelled along the lines of ‘university parties’ that are typical at conventional conferences in higher education. The difference there is that the host is not a university, but a supplier of services to universities and other stakeholders.

The EAIE conference is also a fascinating site in that it represents the changing notion of the spaces where knowledge is generated, as well as who is considered a researcher.

This is no longer reserved for universities and academics in the field of international education. More and more it is the legitimate activity of private companies.

When I was talking to some participants and telling them I am a researcher, I got the answer: "I am a researcher too". It turned out that these people were working for private companies in their ‘intelligence’ aka research units.

These are a few noticeable features that accompany rich conference content. Hundreds of sessions, workshops and dialogues were available to participants that provided for knowledge sharing and opportunities for discussion.

Today the conference is both things: still a space of EAIE’s traditional activities of cooperation, exchange and information sharing, but also a space where new markets in and around higher education are presented.

Consequently, the conference is a clear portrayal of higher education sector boundaries being reworked in the sense of who is allowed to be a legitimate actor as well as what kind of activities are being supported and encouraged.

And it seems that more and more they are about promotion, competition and profit.

EAIE has adapted to this changing reality and is clearly able to cater for the many different needs of a very diverse audience. The commercial side is one that not all are comfortable with, but increasingly more comfortable compared to a decade ago.

* Janja Komljenovic is Marie Curie Doctoral Fellow – Research Assistant at the University of Bristol in the UK. Email: janja.komljenovic@bristol.ac.uk.
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