President of EAIE: International experience should appeal to all students. What can schools do about it?

Despite the intensive efforts of European universities, only approximately 15 percent of students choose a long-term study stay or internship. Even the president of the European Association for International Education (EAIE) and Senior Policy Advisor on Internationalisation at the University of Antwerp, Piet van Hove, admits that it is not enough. "If you look at it very critically, a lot of our actions are only reaching the students who already have an interest in mobility and internationalisation." In the interview, he suggests what to do with it.

Read the story in the Czech version here.

Piet van Hove has been working in the field of internationalisation for almost 30 years. He is one of the leading experts in the field, often speaking at prominent educational conferences, for example at the recent CZEDUCON conference in Brno. 

Reflecting on your entry into the field in 1995, did you have a vision for how the higher education should evolve?
I probably did not have a vision in 1995 because at that time, we were very focused on mobility, internationalisation was almost seen as its synonym. The essence of internationalisation is about changing mindsets, about building international and intercultural competences and having a positive impact on the world. Mobility is a tool we use for that purpose. In the earlier years our focus was very much on the activities themselves, and not so much on the impact. Looking back, we developed many things at that time that made a huge difference in making the whole higher education landscape in Europe more transparent and open. All those developments started from international offices, and in many cases things like ECTS or Bologna process, were later taken over by other departments university and became mainstream. 

And how do you evaluate your work after almost thirty years?
I like to refer to it as a story of “The good, The bad and The Ugly”. The good part is that over 30 years, we've really become very professional in internationalisation, especially when it comes to mobility. There are very good processes and procedures to manage mobility, we have academic recognition and many services for students. The bad part is that the estimate long term mobility across Europe reaches about 15% of the students right now. That is not really where we had hoped to be. We have developed alternatives, complementary actions like internationalisation at home and virtual exchange, but in those aspects, we don't yet see the real mainstreaming or adoption in institutional structures and policies. There are some institutions who do that well, but it's not really across the board. So, our success in that sense is limited. 

What I would call the ugly part is that we are not always working in an evidence-based way, not always assessing our impact with solid research and data. If you look at it very critically, a lot of our actions are only reaching the students who already have an interest in mobility and internationalisation. They already have the problem-solving skills, they're not afraid to go out of their comfort zone and go to another country. So, we are preaching to the converted a little bit, and we are not reaching our full potential.

What should be, in your opinion, done to change that?
I propose to be critical and work in an evidence-based way. Analyse how we can make the biggest difference and how we can focus on the group of students that are not interested international exposure at all in. There's a big group of students who either don't find it interesting, or who don't see it as something they could aspire to. It's mostly because of what I would call social capital reasons. Many students come from backgrounds that don't stimulate them to have this ambition. They usually do not come to our information sessions, because they just don't see the international aspect as being something that's valuable for them in their situation. That's the thing we should try to change, we must aim for 100 percent.

My conclusion is that the only way to do that is to implement internationalisation in the core curriculum, not just in elective courses. We can use virtual exchange or online international collaboration between students, not in every course of course, but in every programme. We should see what courses are suitable for this approach and then support the academics to implement that.

When speaking about what needs to be done in the future, are there any emerging trends or areas that institutions should pay particular attention?
What I find very important is to think about digitalisation, and to be very critical about it. Building trust in society depends on people having positive interactions. That may sound very general, but I think that's what goes on in education as well. The interactions between teachers and students, and among students, are much more complicated and they have a much deeper effect than we think. And that's where digitalisation can be dangerous if it is used to separate people instead of bringing them closer together.

Higher education, if it works well, can be a kind of equaliser for young people. A place where people from all backgrounds can form a community as a basis for later life and become self-confident and responsible citizens. But it depends a lot on the quality of human interactions during those years. So, I always keep this in mind when we look into how digital and online tools can be used. 

Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) is one of such tools. What role does it play in this context?
Mobility has a huge potential to build the personality of students in the sense of taking them out of their comfort zone and having very rich and life changing human interactions. But as I mentioned before, it will never be the majority of students that participate in that. So, online tools like COIL are a way to bring the international exposure to all students. But you must be very intentional about creating the human contact and making the participants human, for example through things like icebreakers, sharing personal stories, showing the local situation and how their life is. 

It's not the same as mobility, but it can complement it, and be a very impactful experience if it’s organised well. That's where a training and professional development becomes essential because when you want to facilitate these kinds of interactions, there are a lot of things to keep in mind to make the human connection more real. 

But it's also a matter of employability in the sense that people who are in different locations must work on projects communicating mostly online, so learning how to do that in an effective and efficient way is in itself a very important skill for the labour market. That’s why it should be mainstreamed, and it should be in the curricula of all students.

Do you believe your recommendations for higher education institutions are broadly applicable, or would you consider adjustments for specific regional contexts, for example in Czechia?
On one level it's broadly applicable. The basic principles and tools can be the same everywhere, but of course they are always adapted to the local situation. If you're setting up a collaboration between students in Czechia and Brazil, the challenge is to connect the local realities of those two places, you can't just use generic formats or copy pasted formats from other places. You must make it real and to look deeply into the local situations, the local people and to be aware of political, economic, and social context that these people are living in.  That's the actual essence of learning in that situation. It won't be about the chemistry problem, if that’s the group assignment, but about the human side. The Czech students will notice little things that are completely different in the way their colleagues in Brazil are responding or how they are working, and vice versa. And it’s these unexpected things that will really stick with them.

If we talk about different realities and worlds clashing, another topic for discussion is how academic workers and students from the “East” are perceived in the Western world. I ask because in the past I have come across lingering feelings of a certain inferiority among Eastern colleagues. And it was also the point of the "Don't be Robert" video at the CZEDUCON conference. Do you think this way of thinking is justified?
Firstly, I think a video like that shows of a lot of stereotypes. I don't see it as a huge problem, I see it as a starting point for a conversation. You can interpret it as stereotypical and explain the stereotypes. But then when you go to the deeper truth about it, I think taking things like Silicon Valley as a reference point is a complete illusion. Silicon Valley is as far from Brussels as it is from Prague, almost. It is illusionary to think you can imitate success stories from other parts of the world. You must find your own base for success in your own local situation and make the international links starting from there. Maybe it sounds silly, but there are strengths everywhere. Central Europe and specifically Czechia have a lot of assets. There is definitely no reason for any kind of inferiority complex. Throughout history most countries and regions have experienced highs and lows, periods of progress and prosperity and periods of great challenges. I would say keeping an international perspective while building on local strengths is key for creating an ambitious future.  

Secondly, as I said, I think stereotypes can be useful in the sense that they can be a starting point for having a conversation, but you shouldn't believe them. There's always some basis of truth, probably historically, but stereotypes should not lead us in our thinking.

When we met at the CZEDUCON 2023 conference, you mentioned attending a Central European event is a different experience for you. Could you please elaborate on that?
Thanks to my role in the EAIE, I have been able to participate in several national and regional events, for example in the UK, Portugal, Slovenia, now in Czechia. It’s interesting to see that even though we speak about internationalisation and globalisation, these terms have a very different meaning depending on your national history, culture, contemporary politics, and partly because of the way higher education is financed. For example, when I go to events in the UK, it’s completely different because the universities there depend on income from international students. So, the whole narrative around internationalisation is shaped by that. The basic question there is how we can recruit enough international students to pay the fees, how we can do it ethically and sustainably. That mindset is completely different from Scandinavia or Germany, where universities can still rely on public funding which makes a huge difference for the meaning of internationalisation. So, it’s interesting to learn about the situation in different countries and the consequences. It allows us to learn from each other, because the way people find solutions, or their way of thinking, develop from their own history. It can be very revealing and give a lot of inspiration to others. 

You have been President of the EAIE since 2022. New leaderships often pursue certain goal they find important. Is there such a goal for you as well?
The way I see it, EAIE is a very successful and healthy organisation, but most people identify it with only the conference. That's fine, it's serving a good purpose in that respect, because people need a meeting place. The good news also is that when we look at the numbers, 75% of conference participants do go to between one to four sessions. So, people are also using it as an opportunity to learn about best practices and so on. But my ambition is to have more impact. 

It's our role as an association of professionals to be a stimulating community which our members and participants feel a part of. To provide a space where they can share their ideals, ambitions, but also their concerns, and find reassurance in that the others are dealing with similar problems. So, what we’re working on now is to make sure that that people feel connected to that community all year long, and not just at the conference. That's why we are developing an online community platform where in the future we will have many new ways to stay connected. We will have a platform, a trusted environment, where people can connect with their peers in specific Communities of Practice, where they can ask questions, get inspiration and support, find new contacts and show their own expertise. The will be able to stay connected to their EAIE community online all year long and meet face-to-face at the conference or elsewhere. That has been my specific call in the last years and in the final part of my presidency, which ends in September 2024. By then, we will have a lot of innovations and a lot of new ways to connect, new unity.

Could you provide insights into the recent projects or initiatives EAIE is working on to promote internationalisation?
What I also want to do and I'm working on is to promote the position of EAIE as a unique stakeholder in higher education in Europe, because we represent the voice of the practitioners who are doing the real work in internationalisation. I think it’s important to make their voice heard among the European Union, European commission, Bolognia process, because while rectors and vice rectors come and go, practitioners are the permanent factor.  That's why it's important to make our voice heard and to bring that perspective to the debate on the future of higher education, because as practitioners we have first-hand experience in what works and what doesn’t. We can take a long-term view on impact and sustainability.