September 13th, 2013
I am just returning from beautiful, ancient, hot, dense, and fragrant Istanbul. I am writing this blog somewhere high above Budapest. With some colleagues from Memorial, I have been attending the annual European Association of International Education conference. Thousands of people who work in the field of international education gathered to attend sessions and meet with each other to discuss international partnerships, exchanges, and potential joint ventures. You’d see Spain talking to Korea, Italy talking to Turkey, Ireland talking to Iceland, and so on. It’s been a hugely interesting and inspiring week and I have come away from the event feeling more on top of what internationalization really means and what the trends are.
Probably the most defining expression of the subject came from Lord Paddy Ashcroft, the keynote speaker at the opening plenary–a robust and articulate auto-didactic who spoke seamlessly and without a note for almost 40 minutes to several thousands of us on a hot Wednesday afternoon. Ashcroft observed that the paradigm of the century was the network, that more than at any other time it is essential to be connected to each other. Collaboration and exchange, he stressed, are the keys to education, to the development of global competences, and even to the solving of the world’s enormous problems. The university that doesn’t get this is doomed to be left behind. Provocatively, Ashcroft said that governments don’t seem to get this. They still act vertically, and diplomacy remains a very narrowly defined exercise in non-lateral dialogue. Universities, he flattered us, have figured out that we need to work horizontally, partnerships being the dominant framework of a healthy educational system.
It was obvious to me at the EAIE that Canadians are still struggling to grasp this. Our students don’t like to to study abroad, but then we aren’t very good at embedding such study into our curriculum, not yet, anyway. Travel comes so much more naturally to European students. They think nothing of taking a semester or two in another country, moving fluidly from language to language, although most of their learning is in English–like it or not, the dominant language of the planet. European students and their supervisors understand the enriching benefits of partaking of another culture, of immersion in a place not our own. It’s about way more than sitting in a classroom or even studying on line. It’s about breathing in another country’s cooking and learning to respect the way they drive or dress, or greet you in the morning.
The universities we met with–in Iceland, France, Korea, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, Sweden–are keen to send their students to us and to receive ours. And so how do we get ours to get out of their self-satisfied shells and explore the world? We don’t have any claim on being superior, that’s for sure, and we need to inspire in our students a sense of the richness of travel and study abroad. I thought it was telling that the EAIE award this year for the most innovative university went to Helsinki for having embedded internationalization directly into their curriculum, into the fabric of everything they do. This is so much the case that they no longer need an international office at all. I wanted to find out more about how they pulled this off. Surely, it’s an incremental process, one requiring patience and some serious strategic thinking. We are getting better at recruiting international students to our study halls. We need to improve that other piece.
What could better demonstrate the allure of place than Istanbul itself? That’s the stunning and famous Blue Mosque above, with its unusual six minarets and its stunning blue tiles, just one of the countless attractive sites in that splendid city. It was impossible not to feel slightly intoxicated by the energy emanating from some twenty million people, from the daily calls to prayer ringing through the hot air or the smells of spice and coffee in the shops and the impossibly large bazarre. While all major media screamed exaggeratedly about riots and protest in Takksum Square, the reality on the street was quite another story. Turks are warm and welcoming and there was never a hint or whisper of threat or danger. Yes, there had been some demonstrations against the government and people spoke with contempt about the current political scene, but one never for a moment got any sense of insecurity. We heard that several US schools had cancelled because of the fear of riots and who knows what. You have to wonder: people committed to international education withdrawing out of fear…of nothing. We have a lot to learn from each other, and being afraid to take some risks is no way to get there.