Does anyone believe international higher education and global
networking can go back to the old ways after a year of living and
While there are powerful voices, such as Liverpool University’s vice-chancellor Janet Beer,
urging a swift return to physical student mobility, I don’t hear the same clamour for staff to go
back to attending international conferences in-person or jetting across the world to recruit
Professor Beer used her online platform at the recent European University Association (EUA) annual conference to make the case that going abroad to study can be a life-changing experience for students, whether for a short exchange or a full degree. It helps cement cross understanding and sensitivities to other people’s cultures, she argued, and shouldn’t be sacrificed as we emerge from the emergency switch over to online learning during the pandemic.
But can the same case be made for staff mobility?
I’ve approached some contacts that I’ve happily stayed in touch with online during the coronavirus crisis to find out what has worked best in the switch to digital events and conferences; where improvements need to be made and whether online working has been so successful it is unlikely we’ll ever leap on a train or plane again to travel hundreds of miles to attend conferences and similar events
What’s worked well?
An unintended consequence of the move towards online events during the pandemic has been significant increased participation, especially as many events have been free to attend, according to frequent conference speaker Janet Ilieva, director and founder of Education Insight.
She thinks the most significant improvements were “bringing together truly global audiences” and
“removing many of the barriers related to the cost and time involved of travel”, with speaker panels
she’s been part of often including contributors from at least three continents.
“It has also meant the content being available to view on-demand by those unable to watch it live and
events became significantly more inclusive while reducing carbon footprint. I very much hope online
conferences are here to stay,” said Janet.
Another familiar to the conference circuit, Vincenzo Raimo, who now works for the world’s largest
student housing provider, Unilodgers, agrees and says one of the few benefits of the enforced changes
during COVID-19 has been the amount of content, often free, during virtual conferences, webinars
and online seminars.
Vicky Lewis, who runs her own international HE strategy consultancy, likes how events such as the
Universities UK International HE Forum 2021 have used platforms to replicate conference features
such as networking and breakout groups.
“In many ways these worked better than in live settings, even if the networking is a bit more
structured. Events have also got slicker, with most offering speaker briefings and rehearsals to iron
out any problems in advance,” she said.
Simon Butt-Bethlendy, brand and reputation manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the world’s largest professional body for safety and health at work, has helped organise over 30 coronavirus-related webinars since in the pandemic struck last year. These have attracted 30,000 participants from more than 150 countries featuring global bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO), hospitals in China and Italy and major corporates and charities.
So, perhaps he should know what’s worked!
Simon says developing the series on Zoom was a steep learning journey. “But we’ve arrived at popular, engaging formats and tricks using pre-recorded orientation videos and effective speaker management that enabled us to cram lots of excellent content and Q&As into 60 minutes each time”.
As for me, I usually attend conferences these days in my capacity as a freelance journalist and prefer
online conferences to be broken up into a series of one-hour sessions spread over several weeks on
specialist subjects, such as racism in universities or replacing Erasmus+ with the UK’s Turing
scheme. But I fear organisers are slipping back into squeezing events over one or two days again.
What needs improving?
Not everyone thinks the current format for online events is here to stay.
Marina Cappelletti, from Corporate Marketing & Communications at Bocconi University Milan in Italy, believes we need to change what she calls “the paradigm for online conferences”.
She doesn’t yet know how, but Marina believes the time is right to reflect and find new modes, saying: “Despite many improvements in the last 14 months, online conferences are still a translation or transmigration from physical to digital events. We now have the opportunity to invent something really new that can enlarge our communication opportunities and find alternative ways of attending live online events that go beyond sitting on a chair in front of a screen.”
Janet Ilieva suspects that innovation will come, but warns: “The more advanced conference platforms will attract a surcharge, leaving a choice between cheaper and accessible for-all platforms or premium products which will attract conference fees. We are likely to see a growing segmentation in the near
Gian-Andri Casutt, president of the European Association of Communication Professionals in Higher Education (EUPRIO) and a science communicator from Switzerland, is unconvinced that the current approach is a real long-term replacement to in-person events. He says short webinars, lasting an hour, have a future as do online meetings, but an online conferences lasting more than a few hours are too long.
Simon also wants more focus on timing and format, moving away from PowerPoint-style presentations, providing more effective pre- and post-event communication and resources together with interactive breakout sessions.
For me, it has been impressive watching how online events have developed, but sometimes the ‘bangs and whistles’, which look great at first become a distraction, with avatar figures greetings delegates and opening doors to the virtual conference hall. Why are these virtual greeters almost always female characters?
And why do some video recordings of sessions you have missed have no fast-forward or go-back options. I also like the use of captions, useful when speakers have strong accents or are not practiced English speakers.
Are online conferences here to stay?
Vicky is looking forward to a blended approach in the future – where those who can attend the
conference venue in-person will be there physically, while those others will participate remotely as
she is planning to do for the Australian International Education Conference (AIEC) in October.
“I’m putting in a proposal with Janet Ilieva and there’s no way we could justify travelling there to do
a 30 minute session on financial or environmental grounds, but this way both speakers and delegates
who live at a distance can still participate. Much more accessible and likely to attract diverse speakers
and audiences, enriching the conference,” says Vicky.
Simon also believes the future is hybrid, but says: “Recording and capturing event content really well,
reformatting it into highly usable and digestible digital resources would maximise the ROI in terms of
money, time and learning and development opportunities.”
Marina agrees the future will be blended, but says there are aspects of physical events that cannot be
replicated in digital format and is looking forward to attending conferences in-person again.
Vincenzo hopes face-to-face conferences return soon as making informal contacts is so much harder
in virtual environments, but adds: “Organisers will need to think differently about content, methods
of participation and the benefits of f2f versus virtual events”.
He says paid online events will need to be special now there is now so much ‘free’ content
available and warns against trying to replicate a traditional conference online. “All day on a
screen is a ‘no-no’. Too easy to get distracted by work and urgent matters.”
Gian-Andri Casutt heads a European network of university PR and communication representatives
and its annual conferences combine cultural immersion with traditional workshops and presentations
and he foresees going back to in-person conferences when it is safe to do so again. “I do not see a real
mix. Being on screen separates you from the other people there,” he says.
I was involved in organising several EUPRIO annual conferences in places as diverse as Vilnius in
Lithuania and Durham in north-east England and do wonder how you could create the atmosphere
online of a ceilidh in Hartlepool Historic Quay or a visit to an old Communist-era re-education camp
But, as someone with mobility challenges since undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy and two
cancer operations a few years ago and who is used to working from home on the North Yorkshire-
Teesside border, I have found attending webinars and online events has been a great way to stay in
touch with developments in global higher education during COVID-19.
However, I already had a network of useful contacts to remain in touch with throughout the pandemic
using Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Starting out with the combined restrictions of COVID-19 and
no physical events to attend in-person would make it so much tougher to develop a global network of
friends and colleagues that has been so important to my understanding of what’s happening across
So, I would opt for the blended future, but that means conference organisers must think of both
audiences – online and in-person – when they plan future events and develop better ways of
interacting with both groups rather seeing them as first and second-class participants.
Main photograph shows delegates at EUPRIO’s 2018 conference in Sevilla, Spain, the last time I attended one of their events in-person instead of online