You do not have to be an internationalisation superhero

19-10-2017

News | Higher education

Interview with Markus Laitinen, EAIE president

Tempus Public Foundation regularly attends the annual conference and exhibition of the European Association for International Education (EAIE). This time though, it invited the president of the Association as a keynote speaker for its own conference organised for international coordinators of Hungarian universities with the title of Trends and challenges in internationalisation of higher education. On this occasion we had a conversation with Markus Laitinen about internationalisation and his presidency at the EAIE.

You had been working at the University of Helsinki for 24 years before you became the president of the EAIE. What would you highlight from your past career that is important in your presidency?

Let me start a little bit earlier. When I started to study political science at the university in 1989, I had the ambition of becoming a diplomat in foreign service. I gave up that idea though, partly because I noticed that being involved in international higher education is a kind of diplomacy. So, in a way I did not give up my aim, I just found a different outlet for it. What I appreciated is how much internationalisation in higher education keeps changing. It is never boring, I have never been bored in my career, and there is always something new around the corner. Engaging with people from different cultural and language backgrounds is really something that I like.

So the EAIE community just fits perfectly with your aims. How did you meet the Association?

At Finnish universities, international higher education practitioners have always been active within the EAIE. I was working at the Faculty of Social Sciences in 1994 when some colleagues told me about the conference, and so I registered for my first EAIE conference, which took place in London. Subsequently I have always gone, first as a conference participant, then a bit later on as a speaker in the conference sessions and workshops. I became a “regular” having only missed three conferences in 24 years. I wasn’t involved in the governance of the association as some of my colleagues were, until one day my phone rang and someone asked me to run for vice-president. It was almost like I had been waiting for that call. Even though I hadn’t previously been engaged with the association’s governance, I very much welcomed the opportunity, first to run in the election, and then when I was elected to be the vice-president and later the president.

EAIE

The European Association for International Education is a non-profit organisation founded in 1989. It is acknowledged European centre for expertise, networking, and resources in the field of internationalisation of higher education. (www.eaie.org)

Duties and election of the EAIE president

The president is the chairman of the Board of the Association, and also chairs the General Council. The second major duty of the position is external representation on events and meetings in partner countries, or events of sister organisations.

Firstly, candidate is elected as vice-president for two years, then the vice-president will automatically become a president for two more years. It means four years in the presidency. After that as the Immediate Past President has still limited role for two more years, staying a part of the General Council. In this way the system allows continuity.

After becoming the president and having much more responsibilities and duties, how could you handle your job at the university? Did you leave it temporarily?

I split my time between the university and the EAIE, so it is certainly a busy time for me, but I enjoy it very much. I have been seconded to the EAIE, so there is an agreement between the university and the association which allows the EAIE to use my time. I really have to emphasise how thankful I am to the University of Helsinki for the support.

What kind of opportunities are there to be more involved in the association, even if most of the people do not have the ambition to step into the governance?

There are so many opportunities to benefit from the EAIE. You can choose for yourself whether you just want to be someone who comes to the conference and enjoys the content and the huge networking potential, or if you want to be a part of the governance or simply write a blogpost for the EAIE website. There are so many different things that one can do with the EAIE, that you even have the chance to be the vice-president and president if you choose. Everyone can be part of shaping the Association. We are all colleagues, and this peer to peer approach is fundamental to the EAIE.

You surely now have a wider view of European and global educational processes. How would you position Hungarian higher education in the international scene?

As I see it, Hungary does many important and necessary things in higher education on a national level, but in my view issues seem to still revolve around student mobility, and the focus is on quantity, i.e. student numbers. Internationalisation at home seems to be underdeveloped a bit, but of course this is the case not only in Hungary. It seems to me that international offices and officers are not fully empowered by the institutions, and maybe it is one of the reasons why we do not have enough Hungarian members within the Association. It is my observation that they do not receive enough freedom to manoeuvre, but I would like to learn more about it.

What would you say to Hungarian colleagues about the benefits of membership in the EAIE?

EAIE membership has numerous benefits. You can develop professional skills and knowledge, and enjoy effective networking opportunities through our trainings, conferences and other activities. It is very much my experience that being involved in the EAIE has the potential to increase the professionalism in participants’ jobs. Internationalisation is ever changing, and the pace of changing is ever quicker. So being engaged with the community helps you to do your job better in higher education.

According to my experience, at least in Hungary, in most cases it is international officers attending the conference. However, academics and experts should also join the professional community of the EAIE.

I absolutely agree. In 2013 at the EAIE Conference in Istanbul, University of Helsinki won the EAIE Institutional Award for Innovation in Internationalisation. The basis for the award was the conviction that internationalisation must spread beyond international offices. Actually my university hasn’t had an international office since 2003, because colleagues from throughout the organisation contribute to the internationalisation efforts of the university. So in my view it’s especially people who have a connection and role within internationalisation, even if they don’t work in an international office, who would greatly benefit from the membership.

How would you motivate colleagues to submit a proposal to the EAIE conference for example?

I think it is very important to realise that people who are speaking in the sessions, and people who are involved in the Association, are colleagues. You do not have to be a sort of internationalisation superhero to still be an effective part of the EAIE. Hungarian institutions would be well-advised to encourage their staff to submit session proposals in order to increase the professional capacity of their staff and to spread best practice.

In your opinion what is the role of an international education association like the EAIE in the 21st century?

First of all, one of the most important strategic aims of the EAIE is relevance. As I said, internationalisation is always changing. The duty of associations like the EAIE is to capture those changes, and expose the details and best practices to our audience. Being aware of what is happening in this changing area of internationalisation is something that we constantly need to do. In terms of relevance we need to make sure to find balance between having a very strong peer to peer aspect of our operation, while still maintaining professional standards.

Next year the EAIE will have its 30th anniversary. How would you describe the past 30 years of the Association? How has it changed?

The two biggest changes are growth and diversity. The numbers of people who are involved have grown tremendously, even if with growth you also experience challenges. Diversity can be defined in many different ways. For example, we went from having 85 countries represented in Liverpool, to 95 countries the following year in Seville (conferences in 2016-2017). So ten new countries stepped into the life of EAIE. But I can also examine diversity from the point of view of topics. In the early days it focused on student mobility and exchange, and now the topics that we cover under the umbrella of internationalisation are much more diverse. In my experience there is one thing that hasn’t changed though, at least for me, and that is the sense of family within the EAIE. The EAIE Leadership and the Expert Communities are very close to one another, and they consist of people who believe in internationalisation.

What would be your message to Hungarian universities?

It would be very important to have more Hungarians not only attending the conference, but as active members of the EAIE. We really want to find the ways in which we can accommodate that. The EAIE takes its European mission very seriously. I should emphasise that it stands for the whole of Europe; unless we have good balance in representation of participants and members from all parts of Europe, I think we would have failed. And I don’t want the EAIE to fail. For me, having a good European representation is a win-win situation and would benefit European International Higher Education tremendously.

Timea Mester-Takács
internationalisation coordinator at Tempus Public Foundation
timea.takacs{at}tpf.hu

Last modified: 19-10-2017