What is a global higher education conference?

There were 250 delegates from 28 countries at the first Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education, more than a third of them from outside host country South Africa. The idea was to create an inclusive platform where voices from the global South and North would carry equal weight in an internationalisation debate – within a safari environment that provokes thoughts about life itself.

“I think we have created a global commons, where we will share through deliberations, create through debate and provide guidance to higher education and the publics we serve,” said Dr Nico Jooste, president of the International Education Association of South Africa or IEASA, host to the conference held from 22-24 August in Kruger National Park.

He was kicking off the three-day event that featured five plenary and 48 panel sessions. The programme was crafted by IEASA in collaboration with colleagues from the European Association for International Education or EAIE and the Association of Brazilian Higher Education Institutions’ Offices for International Relations or FAUBAI.

“The conference was designed to encourage debate and global networking. The publication that will flow from it will serve as a reference point in future when higher education globally plans and strategises around internationalisation,” he told University World News.

“We planned the sessions and themes to address pressing global issues. Most of the other big international conferences are not set up to be global, but international. They are national or regional conferences that have global reach but the focus is not necessarily global.”

Interesting. The Kruger Park was definitely the first “Global Higher Education Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education”. But what, really, is a global conference?


The conference flowed from the first Global Dialogue on Higher Education Internationalisation, held in January 2014 and hosted by IEASA in Port Elizabeth, hometown of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where Jooste is senior director of international education.

The dialogue was attended by 24 international education organisations including major associations from America and Europe and groups from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.

There was agreement to promote international higher education and research “that recognises the richness and diversity offered by all regions for a global higher education agenda which is equitable, ethical, socially responsible, accessible and accountable”.

Also agreed was that the Network of International Education Associations – a global network of leaders of international associations – would help organise a follow-up dialogue, which looks likely to be hosted by the Mexican Association for International Education next year.

The idea of a global conference on internationalisation was floated in Port Elizabeth, but not adopted as a formal part of the resulting “Nelson Mandela Bay Global Dialogue Declaration on the Future of Internationalisation of Higher Education”.

There was some uncertainty in Port Elizabeth about how the Global Dialogue might relate to a global conference. And perhaps a little territoriality. How might a global conference be different from the huge annual events of groups such as America’s NAFSA – Association of International Educators – the EAIE and the International Education Association of Australia, which attract thousands of delegates, including from around the world?

Issues and themes

Still, most of the 24 international education associations that were in Port Elizabeth, were also in the Kruger Park, and the EAIE actively supported IEASA in the conference’s conception.

Markus Laitinen, incoming president of the EAIE – which has around 3,000 members, mostly international education practitioners – said its annual conference, being held in Liverpool this month, attracts around 5,000 participants from more than 90 countries. “So it is truly a global conference as well.”

Europe, he said, faces numerous challenges and among the biggest are refugees, Brexit and Turkey. “A fourth is increasing nationalistic tendencies, xenophobia and even racism.” These issues have promoted much response activity in EAIE – for instance, with other actors it is working towards a European ‘passport’ that recognises refugee credentials – and will be subjects of much debate in Liverpool.

The Kruger Park themes were: the role of higher education and internationalisation in tackling global issues such as peace, migration, environment and poverty; bridging the inequality gap and making higher education internationalisation truly global and inclusive; innovations in internationalisation practices that bring the developing and developed worlds closer together; shifting global geo-political parameters and the influence on internationalisation; and collaboration between national and regional organisations in advancing internationalisation.

Professor John Hudzik, a former president of NAFSA, said at the close of the conference that it had been “a really interesting event, an interesting opportunity to reflect because the content has been very different from the content I’ve seen in other places.

“I don’t have many answers, probably none. But I have quite a few new questions.”

Collaboration had been an area of difficulty, said Hudzik: “How to get people to work together in a true spirit of collaboration. There is a strong feeling within this event of the spirit of collaboration, and I have enjoyed it.”

It was important to take advantage of networks such as IEASA, and “to create spaces that are global, and this has been a perfect opportunity to do that”. People around the world, such as in NAFSA, are also trying to create global spaces: “We hope there are opportunities to continue to collaborate.”

A global conference?

So there were aspects, it seems, that made the Kruger Park event different from other international education gatherings that are definitely international, perhaps global.

According to Nico Jooste, the ‘global-ness’ of the conference had to do with how it was conceptualised and promoted. The programme was constructed to have maximum international representation and address multiple issues of global significance.

“Also, remember that the global conferences will always be held in the South. So this is a southern influence, or a developing world influence, on global thinking.” People from developing countries were dominant among the participants and in sessions.

“We also made sure that there was representation of senior African thinkers, so we had the global and the local – Africa – in one space. We wanted to bring the richness of Africa’s contribution to global international education,” Jooste explained.

He was delighted that there were African and South African vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors attending – usually it is only international offices represented at IEASA events.

“The internationalisation of higher education needs the support of university leaders, or it will never make the impact that it should,” Jooste said.

One was Professor Otlogetswe Totolo, vice-chancellor of Botswana International University of Science and Technology, which is spearheading the country’s efforts to become an international education hub.

Another was Dr Loveness Kaunda, deputy vice-chancellor of Mzuzu University in Zambia, who described how the University of Strathclyde stepped in to help rebuild and restock the university library when it accidentally burned down – an outstanding act of international solidarity.

Jooste was also delighted by the response to the conference call for papers. “We received three times more papers than we could use, and so we could select papers that really spoke to the topics, and we could make sure that they were global.

“Of the papers from the parallel sessions, 30 were by international people – which is very different from other international conferences I go to, including the annual IEASA conference, where the parallel sessions tend to be local.”

Jooste said he hoped there would be another global conference in four years' time – the intention is that it should move around the global South. There is a possibility that Brazil’s FAUBAI will run with the idea, or Poland’s strong emerging association.

Finance could be a problem. “IEASA put its own money into this conference, with help from sponsors. There was no training happening, there were no exhibition halls. We invested in this conference to make it global. That will be a decider in future. Is there an organisation that is prepared to invest? That’s my challenge to people – keep this idea alive and take it forward.”