EUROPE: Crisis? EAIE beats all records

Last week a massive 4,200 participants flocked to Copenhagen to participate in the 23rd annual conference of the European Association for International Education, or EAIE. From its small, first meetings in Amsterdam in 1989 and 1990, the organisation has managed to make its annual gathering the single biggest networking event for international higher education professionals in Europe. And now beyond.

If anyone wondered whether in a world where international cooperation has become the norm in higher education, there is still was a need to devote entire conferences to the issue, the EAIE has the answer. Breaking all records at this year's annual event, it must be a resounding yes.

With registered participants from more than 80 countries (a 17% increase over the past couple of years), 100-odd sessions, 25 workshops, half an acre of floor space housing 250 exhibitors, and drinks on a windy early Autumn Copenhagen artificial beach, the association has again outperformed its predecessors.

With never-hidden attention to the social as well as the professional side of networking, the conference has been a success story during most of its history. But it's not just the drinks and creative side-events that keep attracting such large crowds to the conferences that are organised at a different location in Europe each year.

The EAIE works hard at reinventing itself, if always keeping a familiar tone to unfamiliar initiatives. This year is no exception. The programme in Copenhagen introduced new forms of debate and went further beyond Europe than ever before.

According to EAIE president Gudrun Paulsdottir, this is a trend that is set to continue. "It's not a deliberate policy or strategy," she said, briefly escaping one of her many meetings at the Bella Center on Amager Island.

"It's an inevitable change. In Madrid in 2009, our theme was 'Connecting Continents'. We used Madrid as a stepping-stone to reach out to Latin America. Today we can see the results of that. This year we have invited African and Asian associations to see how we can develop closer cooperation in the future."

Every year, two-thirds of the visitors are newcomers. This year, a good number of those seemed to have come from Asia, whose universities were tremendously well represented at the fair.

"Developments in higher education today are simply global," said Paulsdottir. "Even the EU's Erasmus Programme has gone global. And the way the EAIE is structured does not give us full control over such direction anyway. We depend on our professional sections for our programming and for them it comes natural too to look beyond the borders of Europe."

But some conscious decisions were made, such as those for sessions on the Arabic unrest, which deeply affects Europe, the role of higher education in the new republic of South Sudan and the global environment.

And always that slight twist to remind those present that higher education, whether international or not, is not the be all and end all of life: this year's conference was opened by a non-Danish Dane (Princess Marie) and Hummel business guru Christian Stadill, who never even bothered to finish his degree.

This year's workshops also moved the horizon considerably to match the realities of higher education in Europe today. One covered participatory research with African universities, others offered a primer on US higher education, best practice in engaging with Indian institutions and capacity building through North-South cooperation.

With international higher education a seemingly self-sustained engine in an ever-more globalising world, can organisations such as the EAIE take some of the credit for the increasingly international orientation of European universities?

"We never claimed to have invented international cooperation," says Paulsdottir told University World News. "But I believe that we have managed to get more people on board. We make it easier for people to get introduced to some complicated practice. And we continue to do so, because still every year new universities come to our conferences to learn from their more experienced peers.

"I think one of our biggest strengths is that we have never tried to regulate internationalisation, but only to support it."