Nic Mitchell looks forward to his 21st conference of the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers association (EUPRIO) in Gothenburg this September and reflects on the value of being part of this special family of higher education communicators – which he first joined on the hills of Tuscany.
My baptism into the EUPRIO family came at the 1990 conference and apart from missing Strasbourg in 1997, I’ve attended every conference since. Back in 1990, it felt like I was joining a rather secretive sect. The setting – a converted monastery owned by the University of Siena on a Tuscan hillside – added to the overall sense of mystery.
By today’s standards it was a tiny affair, with just over 60 attending. But what a marvellous way to break free from the narrow, and often rather inward-looking, higher education training events I had been attending in the UK since giving up newspaper journalism to become public relations officer at, what was then, Teesside Polytechnic.
I believe I was the only UK representative from a non-elite British university at the Siena conference, but I was made very welcome -particularly by our Italian hosts.
From the word go, I realised EUPRIO was something rather special. And over the years, I’ve wondered why more of my fellow citizens don’t see the value of sharing experiences and working with our near neighbours in Europe rather than constantly looking to the United States for the answers to all things marketing!
Of course, it has been marvellous to travel to places that I probably would never have visited, such as Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle in Finland and Leece on the heel of Italy for conferences: EUPRIO certainly encourages a spirit of adventure in its choice of out-of-the-way venues.
But what I’ve realised is that fellow Europeans think nothing of attending a meeting in Helsinki one day and Porto the next month, while we, in the UK, make such a song and dance of travelling abroad for a conference – even if it works out cheaper than a couple of days in London.
That’s part of the reason I’ve taken the plunge and set up De la Cour Communications to work with other European universities to encourage more British students to venture abroad to study for their degrees. We certainly need to break free from our ‘Little Englander’ constraints and realise our future lies across the North Sea as well as in the US and Asia.
But getting back to the value of EUPRIO and being invited to events for communicators at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.
For me, it has been about gaining a much broader vision of where higher education, research and knowledge transfer is heading – and not just seeing things through Anglo Saxon spectacles.
Probably the most rewarding aspect of my involvement, which included ten years representing the UK’s Higher Education External Relations Association (HEERA) on EUPRIO’s Steering Committee, has been helping to organise four annual conference (Durham in 2003; Vilnius in 2006; Grenoble in 2007 and Stavanger in 2008).
Of course, it is not always easy trying to be a truly European public relations and communications organisation, and we’ve had our differences – but the organisation has survived and prospered despite the obstacles.
Now, we face another period of uncertainly, with financial cutbacks making it more difficult for some members to attend conferences, but we’ve managed to maintain our truly a unique network in the past and will do so in the future.
And, as someone who has recently left the relative security of a full-time PR manager’s post at a British university, my EUPRIO network of professional contacts has proved invaluable in helping me to strike out on my own as an independent public relations and communications consultant.
As well as doing some marketing research and more strategic work in Sweden, I’m using my experience to write a regular blog on European higher education trends for EUPRIO’s website and look after the @EUPRIO twitter news feed.
And so to this year’s conference in Gothenburg, pictured, where the theme couldn’t be more topical: ‘The social contract between universities and society’.
We’ll be looking at how European universities should use communications as a key tool to win public support in their fight against cutbacks and challenge the assumption that higher education savings can be easily made because the majority of voters are not interested in the valuable role universities play.
In some ways the challenges today are similar to those faced two decades ago when I first became involved with higher education and EUPRIO. Then, like now, many countries were experiencing economic woes and pinning their future hopes on creating strong knowledge-based societies.
But I can’t recall the public sector being under such long and sustained attack. This is something new and it makes our conference theme even more relevant.
For while we may have got rid of the ‘ivory towers’ image, it doesn’t mean we have proved our worth to society or created the necessary partnerships and allies to avoid higher education becoming ‘easy prey’ for governments trying to reduce state deficits.
Higher education has all too easily become a political football, whether over tuition fees, clamping down on ‘bogus’ students or refusing post-study work permits to meet immigration targets.
We’ve certainly got much to talk about – and different European experiences will prove valuable – as we attempt to find a common understanding of the importance of public funding for universities and the essential role they play in building a better society.
See you in Gothenburg…