I spent part of last week at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) meeting in Boston. It was my first time at what is really quite an extraordinary event and I was pretty blown away by it all. If you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalization, I highly recommend a visit.
In theory, NAFSA is a traditional professional conference. And from a certain angle, it still resembles one, despite having 11,000 or so delegates. There are plenaries with big name speakers (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell), and there are a couple of hundred small conference sessions and panels. (I spoke at one of those, on the subject of rankings). But what tells you right away that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the floor show put on by the exhibitors.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how many exhibitors there were – my guess would be somewhere between 500 and 700 – but they came in all shapes and sizes. Recruiting agents were there, of course – some big, some small. Big vendors of services like language testing companies and pathways agencies. Individual educational institutions or – more often –booths for national agencies charged with promoting internationalization with lots of individual universities sheltering underneath the national banner. Plus there were a few little independent companies trying to drum up business for some occasionally quite oddball ideas. My favourite among those was a group which had somehow come into possession of some really quite stunning property in the Basque Country, and want to turn it into a kind of reverse-Minerva: people come from around the world while studying virtually elsewhere – the value-added being that the campus would provide ample support for experiential learning, and in particular applied research projects with local and international companies. As an idea, it’s just crazy enough that it might work if the right partnership arrangements can be made.
In fact the floor show is so overwhelming that it kind of overshadows the actual sessions. People simply wander around from booth to booth without ever making it to a session. Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, this is the part that can make someone who views internationalization (among other things) with something of a skeptical eye a bit queasy. Obviously, all those booths are wonderful in the sense that they give you a sense of how many educational opportunities there really are in the world. But on the other hand, the economics of all this are quite puzzling. Remember, there are no actual students or parents – that is, people who might bring some kind of direct return on investment – seeing these booths. Mostly, the audience is other institutions. And so all that frenetic activity one sees o the floor is actually just a massive speed-dating event – institutional reps looking for other institutional reps with whom they can sign partnership agreements. That would of course be fine if partnership agreements actually meant anything. Problem is, most of the time they don’t: no one’s ever calculated the mode number of students coming to any institution via a given partnership agreement, but I’d lay serious money on that number being zero or one. Spending thousands of dollars on fees and sponsorship costs and hotels to do this is a bit weird, frankly.
And it’s not just individual institutions who seem to be spending over the odds for what they’re getting in return. Why are tiny Peruvian universities shelling out five figures to be platinum conference sponsors? Why was “Study in Turkey” one of the largest exhibitors (seriously, outside the Middle East, who wants to study abroad in an emerging authoritarian state)? There is an undercurrent of conspicuous consumption at the event, as if spending simply showing up here and making a spending a lot of money means you’ve arrived, internationalization-wise. The series of receptions and parties that surround the event reinforce that impression.
Put it this way: there’s lots of good stuff at NAFSA. There are plenty of excellent people to meet from around the world and you can see some of the most interesting aspects of internationalization in higher education as its being practiced around the world. But it’s also a schmooze-fest, with more than an occasional whiff of being a junket. Institutions wishing to attend or exhibit would be well advised to set some serious, meaningful goals for participation (preferably ones which do not prioritize signing yet more partnership agreements) in order to ensure value for money.