Thoughts on the international education conference circus

In the past two months I have attended three large annual international education conferences.

One was hosted by the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) in Washington DC, took place from 20-22 February and had more than 800 participants. There was the “Going Global” conference organised by the British Council in London from 13-15 March, with more than 1,200 participants, and the conference of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE), which was held in Bangkok from 4-6 April with more than 800 people attending.

Together with the annual Australian International Education Conference of the IDP and the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), which will be held in Melbourne from 2-5 October and which will probably have a similar number of participants to “Going Global”, these three conferences are in terms of the number of people they attract, among the world’s leading international education conferences.

They draw more participants than other international education conferences such as those of the Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE), the Mexican Association for International Education (AMPEI) and the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) – to mention just a few that attract between 200 and 500 participants each.

In that same category are also more specialist conferences, such as the one by the Forum on Education Abroad and the Council on International Educational Exchange in the US, and the conference run by the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA) in Europe.

They are, however, lagging far behind the conference held by the European Association for International Education (EAIE), which will be held in Dublin this year from 11-14 September and will attract more than 4,000 people, and the NAFSA annual conference, which will have over 8,000 participants at its conference in Houston from 27 May to 1 June.

International education has become an industry

Every month there appear to be at least two international education conferences somewhere in the world, although most are still held in Europe and the US. And, crisis or not, all these conferences have seen an increase in the number of participants and exhibitors taking part.

This is a clear reflection of the fact that international education has become an industry. Some interesting and critical observations can be made about this annual circus of international education conferences.

In the first place, only two of the international education associations are regional ones: APAIE and EAIE; the others are national. There is no overarching global association – although there is a Council of International Education Associations, it is not very active.

As for those taking part in the conferences, NAFSA, EAIE and increasingly APAIE and AIEA have in addition to their national or regional constituency a global audience of between 20% and 30%. This is also true for their exhibitions.

Surprisingly, other conferences, including the Australian one, have a far more limited international presence.

In the case of APAIE in Bangkok, I was shocked to find that non-Asian participation was at least equal to Asian participation, and in the sessions and presentations few Asians were present. Participation from China, Japan and Indonesia was negligible.

At the “Going Global” conference, though, Asians were rather more present as they are increasingly at NAFSA and EAIE.

At international education conferences you see many Australians and Europeans, and increasingly participants from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Americans tend to go predominantly to their own conferences and, if they go abroad, to the EAIE's conference. They are far less present at international education conferences in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The dominance of the NAFSA conference may explain this attitude, but in my opinion it is a dangerous development. It is important that there is much more travel between the continents.

NAFSA occasionally organises its conferences in Canada. There are joint seminars such as between AIEA and EAIE as well as between EAIE and IEAA, and there is the Council of International Education Associations. And yet there is surprisingly little global cooperation and leadership in the field of international education.

NAFSA, given its size and the international participation at its conference, could be expected to take the lead, but the association is nearly exclusively focused on its national advocacy role and does not show much interest in more global advocacy for international education.

A positive exception are essays and blogs by NAFSA senior fellows John Hudzik, Madeleine Green and Kristopher Olds, who provide a positive contribution to the global debate on internationalisation.

At the global level, it is not the Council of International Education Associations but the International Association of Universities (IAU) that takes the lead in the debate on rethinking internationalisation (although representatives of several associations take part in its expert panel).

Time for a re-think

In my opinion, it is time that the different international education associations rethought their role and how they cooperate with each other. Here are some suggestions, for what they are worth.

Maybe it would be a good idea if the International Education Association of South Africa represented Southern Africa. Attempts to develop a Latin American International Education Association should be supported. On the other hand, APAIE might limit itself to Asia or South East Asia.

And it might be an idea to organise, every three or five years, a global international education conference of all the different associations, linked to one of the existing conferences, with it being held not in the US or Europe but on one of the other continents.

And when such a conference is held, position papers on global international education could be prepared and discussed.

It is time to really internationalise international education conferences.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is co-founder and past president of the EAIE.