The View from Down Under: Reflections on the APAIE Conference in Melbourne

This year’s Asia Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) Conference was the biggest ever with 1,600 attendees. And although Australia was a long way even for some of us in the rest of Asia, universities, NGOs and international education experts from across the globe gathered to find common cause and mull over the issues facing our sector.

The main theme of the conference was “Asia Pacific – A Global Education and Research Powerhouse” (a name which may sound quite familiar to readers of IIE publications) and the conference represented a concerted effort to help reorient the flow of international research and learning towards the Asia-Pacific region. The keynote speech, delivered by Professor Simon Marginson of the Institute of Education of University College London, focused on recent developments among universities within and beyond Asia; Singapore was marked out as a lead international collaborator and producer of quality research while China claims an increasing share of world research output, even if it is not yet being cited as frequently as U.S. and European universities. Placing collaboration before competition, Prof. Marginson sees many opportunities for world class, world enhancing ideas to be distilled between Asia and the rest of the planet provided we all keep open minds and open borders.

Breakout sessions spanned four categories:

  1. Student, educator and researcher mobility
  2. Educating tomorrow’s global citizens
  3. Research engagement and collaboration
  4. Trends and strategic developments

Subjects ranged from the philosophical (one session asked if Confucius Institutes were true partners or surrogate families for their hosts) to the very practical (another pondered the success of universities in non-native English countries teaching degrees in English that go too fast for local students and too slowly for international students). There was a lot of talk of Australia’s New Colombo plan—a signature initiative of the Australian Government which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region. Given the prevalence of young Australians studying and working the world over, I was surprised to learn just how challenging it can be to get them to take their first steps into relatively nearby countries in the region; maybe they need their own version of IIE’s Generation Study Abroad campaign.

APAIE 2016 was good for IIE and EducationUSA and we had a great chance to bring together the skills and personalities of teams from seven IIE offices (including New York). Our booth was well placed just opposite the Hong Kong pavilion and we were able to connect up with many ongoing business contacts and make new friends. A reception for friends of the Schwarzman Scholars Program (SSP) at the IIE booth allowed us not only to say thank you to universities who had promoted SSP, but to impress other invitees who could see from the turnout just how we are able to make global connections and seek out the very best students.

With a boldness springing from our (relative) youth and our being at a venue many thousands of miles from the western round, our own breakout session (there were a number of other great sessions staffed by IIE and EducationUSA) sought to challenge the very concept of global citizenship and exchange. “Creating Global Citizens or Global Elites: Democratizing the International Education Experience” posed probing questions of our audience about who really benefits and how can we bring the fruits of global citizenship to students who would consider themselves lucky even to be in school in their home countries. This allowed us to showcase some IIE managed programs aimed at the most disadvantaged. We then demanded responses from our audience to these questions by running a novel ‘breakout-within-a-breakout’. We believe this thoughtful approach paid off as ours was the only session to be referenced by the august panel of international education leaders in the final plenary session of the conference.

So all in all the view from down under on matters of international education and exchanges, while not entirely dissimilar to the view from the opposite, western direction, does offer a very distinct landscape; full of academics, students and researchers focusing on the wider world while demonstrating a growing confidence in the regional values and dynamism that make it wise for us to ask, “Asia: the Next Higher Education Superpower?” (I have to admit I prefer IIE’s 2015 book title over the conference theme).

Written by Paul Turner with input from Namrata Jha, Diana Jahja and Jonathan Lembright who together form the IIE International Office Director team for Asia.