The European Association for International Education @ 25 years

When the European Association for International Education, or EAIE, was founded in 1989 in Amsterdam, Europe was a different place in many ways.

Cold War thinking still dominated worldviews, the European Community had 12 member countries compared to the current 28 of the European Union, and the Euro had not yet been introduced as a common currency. Asian economies were beginning to emerge, but Asian countries were considered more Third World than New World and able to challenge Old Europe.

Although trade in education, cross-border delivery and branch campuses were around, they were not such a central part of discourse and policies in higher education as they are now. (Inter)national rankings of universities were unheard of.

Bologna was only a city and Italy’s oldest university, not a ‘process’. Cooperation prevailed, with commercialisation and competition considered obscure Anglo-Saxon phenomena that would never reach the Continent. How we have changed.

New needs and changing realities

The EAIE came about as a response to new needs and changing realities in European higher education.

Until the 1980s, universities had paid little attention to internationalisation beyond individual student mobility, small national scholarship schemes and technical assistance to developing countries. A comprehensive approach to internationalisation was not part of the higher education mindset; institutions were only marginally reactive to external initiatives and did not develop proactive, strategic initiatives of their own.

Promoting mobility was considered part of foreign policy. Historical ties with former colonies, political and economic considerations and the traditional mobility of the elites dominated the international education scene. Institutional and national policies were absent, as was any European policy on internationalisation.

But that was about to change as training and education were identified as key driving forces for European integration and cooperation.

The European Community had launched a pilot for ‘Joint Study Programmes’ in 1976, building on some earlier national exchange initiatives, and a gradual shift began to take place from South-North to North-North mobility.

This paved the way for more substantive international education initiatives in the 1980s, in particular the extraordinarily successful European Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, Erasmus, which in turn created the impetus for the EAIE.

A new association for a new profession

Nobody had anticipated the success of Erasmus and as the numbers grew it became apparent, to some at least, that there was a need for an association that would promote cooperation and provide professional development to the new brand of administrators who were pioneering the field.

The energy to bring the EAIE to life came from the enthusiasm and vision of a small group of volunteers. It is a vision that has stood the test of time, for while the EAIE has grown and matured over the past 25 years, its original vision and mission still guide its development and direction today.

That the founders had anticipated a need was confirmed at the founding conference in Amsterdam, which attracted more than 600 participants, both from Europe and beyond.

Once launched, the EAIE would need to find a clear direction, and it discovered inspiration in the inclusion of education in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Looking back, this appears as a high point in European integration, a period in which the later failure of plans for a European Constitution and the current sentiments against further integration would have been unimaginable.

The Maastricht Treaty, related European Commission initiatives and increased attention by national governments and institutions of higher education to internationalisation set the scene for the first half of the 1990s.

Student mobility as an integrated part of study, widening its scope to other regions – third countries in Western, Central and Eastern Europe as well as beyond Europe – development cooperation, and European research became central pillars of internationalisation strategies at European, national and institutional levels.

The increasing importance of international education in Europe was given concrete form in a range of European Commission programmes such as: a second phase of Erasmus, which came under the new Socrates programme with the introduction of institutional contracts and European Policy Statements; Tempus, which opened up to a broader range of countries beyond Central and Eastern Europe; the first external dimension programmes; and the early predecessors of the framework programmes for research.

The EAIE at the end of the millennium

The founding and establishment of the EAIE took place in a period in which the pace of political and economic integration in Europe and in its higher education sector had accelerated amid much excitement, innovation, cooperation and expansion.

In this period, the EAIE grew from a start-up to the reality of a living, working association. And although only a small voice in Europe, it rapidly became a central player in the field of international education.

Advocacy at the level of the European Commission, the Council of Europe and other international higher education entities coincided with more fundamental discussions and publications in which the why, how and what of internationalisation were questioned, presented and framed, often in collaboration with ‘sister organisations’ in other world regions. Many of these ideas were translated into practice.

In 1999, the end of the millennium, the EAIE launched the ‘Internationalisation at Home’ movement, an idea that had been present since the very first conference, when the issue of the ‘other 90%’ of non-mobile students was raised. From idea to form, it has continued to flourish over the years and has today become a central element of internationalisation strategies.

In the first years of its existence, the EAIE developed from an organisation whose primary aims were the professional development of its members and the creation of a network of information and communication in the emerging field of European international education, into a representative European association that has become an active player in public policy and strategic thinking. Its voice is now heard in Europe and beyond.

It was driven by a powerful vision and strong ideals of a united Europe, of equal access to higher education, and of international education as a core activity in the curriculum, not only for personal development but also as way to build a better world.

They were years of optimism and faith in Europe’s future.

Responding to a decade of dynamic change

The year 1999 marked the end of a millennium and it also signalled new beginnings for European higher education.

It was the year in which the Bologna Declaration was signed against a backdrop of what appeared to be an ever-stronger Europe. The European Union (EU) extended its membership from 15 to 27 countries and the Euro was introduced as a single currency.

However, the sense of integration and related economic and political security of a single European space would soon come under threat, first following the tragic attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001, then after the rejection of the European Constitution by Dutch and French voters in 2005, and more recently as a result of global and European economic problems triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.

The 2000 Lisbon Strategy of the European Council strove, perhaps over-ambitiously, to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. Global rankings began to impact on the way universities thought about themselves and on how their role was perceived by society and industry at large.

Globalisation and the emergence of the knowledge economy, shifts in economic balances and demographics and an accelerating IT revolution were putting powerful pressures on higher education institutions, requiring them to change at an unprecedented pace.

The higher education response to these massive pressures was expressed in the Lisbon Strategy, which identified the creation of a European Research Area as one of its targets, and more specifically in the Bologna process with its key goal of building the European Higher Education Area.

The Bologna process had started with only four countries signing the Sorbonne Declaration in Paris in 1998, but it rapidly gathered pace in the next decade, reaching a total of 46 countries representing around 5,600 universities and 31 million students.

Bologna was conceived and developed thanks to the extremely positive experience and influence of cooperation under Erasmus, hailed as one of the most successful European initiatives ever.

Initially the principal focus of the Bologna process was on the internal impetus for putting the European ‘house’ in order through greater commonality in degree structures, credit systems and quality assurance. But it quickly acquired an external dimension.

Convergence of structures and tools was aimed not only at increasing mobility and cooperation within Europe, but also at making Europe more competitive and more attractive to the rest of the world.

The external challenges meant that shared problems now called for shared solutions and the Bologna process developed very quickly into an unprecedented landmark reform, achieving in 10 years what many national governments had failed to achieve in decades.

The emerging European Higher Education Area not only created an external identity for European higher education institutions, but also generated strong interest in the new instruments and models in other world regions.

The current economic and political crisis in Europe has meant that many of the national reforms needed to complete the process have been put on hold. Nevertheless, a solid foundation in European higher education reform was laid and the European Higher Education Area emerged as a reality.

The EAIE as a knowledge hub

The first decade of the 21st century was an exciting and dynamic time for the EAIE.

The Bologna process had put Europe centre stage and the EAIE took advantage of global interest in European higher education by promoting itself as a knowledge hub through its annual conference, regional seminars, professional development programmes and range of publications.

Conference attendance reached over 4,000 people from 80 countries and the conference programme adapted to the knowledge needs. More new international education professions were emerging in what was now increasingly being termed the ‘business of higher education. But interest in – and commitment to – cooperation did not fade away.

On the contrary, it became Europe’s key competitive advantage. Strategic partnerships, joint programmes, double degrees and other collaborative projects featured high on the conference programme, as did more structured networking events.

It had become increasingly apparent that alongside gaining new knowledge, a primary reason for attending the conference was connecting with other institutions and organisations in a very cost-effective way.

Professional development, structured through the EAIE Academy and a series of publications – including the Internationalisation of European Higher Education Handbook with the publisher Raabe, and the scholarly Journal of Studies in International Education together with sister organisations around the world and Sage Publications – have become important additions to the annual conference.

What lies ahead?

Three years into the post-Bologna phase, the world has changed dramatically yet again. The decade that lies ahead of Europe is one of uncertainty, as it finds itself still in the grip of an economic crisis. The issues have become bigger, the climate more tense and in some areas less cooperative.

The European dream, which so greatly influenced the creation of the EAIE 25 years ago, is being seriously challenged. The creation of European citizenship, a key objective in European programmes, seems to be slipping away.

The Bologna process was undoubtedly the greatest higher education reform ever in Europe, bringing about unprecedented change. But by the time it drew to its conclusion, it had become apparent that Bologna was already insufficient to provide adequate solutions to current challenges.

In today’s global environment, competition for talent and knowledge has become fiercer and the race to rise up the rankings more intense. When people or institutions compete for prestige, talent or income, there will not only be winners but also losers. Not all are in the same position to take advantage of the new environment, not all are willing to take the risk.

New providers of higher education have emerged, challenging traditional university models. The rapid rise of private higher education, both non-profit and for-profit, has become a global phenomenon, with 30% of the global student population in this sector. New forms of higher education have appeared, such as the explosion of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, currently hailed as the new game changer.

Many see only challenges and threats. However, in crisis there is always opportunity. Universities are expected to become key players in the global knowledge economy and internationalisation has been identified as the key response to globalisation.

This has radically altered the understanding of internationalisation in universities as it shifts from being a marginal to mainstream activity, no longer located exclusively in international offices but also an integral part of university strategy. Significant rethinking is required and each university must interpret what internationalisation means in the specific context of its own mission.

Developments such as ‘internationalisation at home’ and ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’, the increased focus on intercultural, international and global competences and learning outcomes of graduates and staff, and the link between internationalisation and employability and citizenship, require new approaches and strategies and new ways of thinking that focus on outcomes and impact.

The EAIE and its future incarnation

Those who work in international education know of the good that it can bring, but is internationalisation still all ‘motherhood and apple pie’? Or will the so-called darker sides of internationalisation generate tensions that will detract from the reasons that make international education worthwhile?

Will we see more or less ‘Europe’ in the next decade? And how will this affect relations with other world regions? Inevitably, more change lies ahead as fundamental questions are asked about the roles and responsibilities of higher education, and consequently of the purpose and scope of internationalisation.

To what extent does the EAIE see its role as one of responding to shifts in the environment or one of becoming a pro-active player shaping the future of internationalisation? The answer to that question will set the path for its development in the next decade.

* This is a shortened version of the first chapter by the authors in the book Possible Futures – The next 25 years of the internationalisation of higher education, published by the EAIE on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, 2013-2014 . The EAIE’s annual conference takes place in Istanbul from 10-13 September. More information.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. He is a founding member and past president of the EAIE. Email: Fiona Hunter has worked in strategic management of internationalisation of higher education for the past 20 years and recently became a consultant in higher education. She is also a past president of the EAIE. Email: