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Digital Transformation in International Student Recruitment and Higher Education Marketing. Meet the experts: Piet Van Hove

PIET VAN HOVE is a Senior Policy Advisor at the University of Antwerp and currently serves as the President of the European Association for International Education (EAIE).

He has been active in internationalisation since 1995, working in the areas of student and staff mobility, development cooperation, services for international staff and students, international educational projects and strategic networking. Piet has been in the leadership of several professional associations and non-profits at the national and international level for many years, such as Flanders Knowledge Area, the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), the NGO APOPO (training rats to save lives) and the EAIE.

In your role as President of the EAIE, what is your vision of the international student of the future? How do you see the evolving needs, expectations, and aspirations of students shaping the landscape of international higher education? 

I see different trends happening in higher education, which may or may not be contradicting each other.

On the one hand, we have a trend towards more flexibility, unbundling, micro-credentials, tailor-made learning, independent of place and time.
With the growing cost of higher education in many countries, the value proposition of investing several years in fulltime study is more and more questioned and we see an increased focus on return on investment and immediate employability.
The need to be more inclusive is also often given as an argument for the movement towards more flexible learning paths, often online. It all seems to point to a rather materialistic and utilitarian short-term vision, putting into question the traditional college experience.

On the other hand, we do see a generation of students who care about values, about sustainability and fairness. Many students make study choices that reflect the fact that they want to develop a long-term vision and want to contribute something positive to the world. The pandemic also made us realise the importance of real human interactions for personal development and building social capital. The competencies that really matter in the long term, like communication skills, flexibility, problem-solving, and the ability to collaborate effectively across differences of cultures, contexts and scientific disciplines, requires a learning environment that is rich in human interactions of many kinds. The experience of being a student is, in my view, as much about personal development as it is about gaining directly applicable knowledge and skills. Personal development is a slow process.

With the rapid advancement of technologies, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and online learning platforms, how do you anticipate these innovations will impact international higher education? What opportunities and challenges do you foresee in terms of delivering quality education, fostering cultural exchange, and supporting the international student experience?

Sadly, new technologies such as AI and online learning are often used in a poor way, for quick wins and fake social inclusion. “Quality” in education is often reduced to aspects that are easily measured and bring short-term benefits. When this leads to a decrease in real human interactions, inside and outside the classroom, I believe this is a misguided evolution.

The good news is that all these new technologies can also be used in ways that actually increase human interaction and facilitate real connections.

Through methodologies like Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) we can actually bring the benefits of global learning to learners who never had access to physical mobility. Virtual exchange brings professors and fellow students from any country right into your classroom at home. Students can have conversations and carry out assignments in close collaboration with their peers all over the globe, with direct access to local information and insights, without having to travel. The benefits in terms of international and intercultural learning are real but quite different from those brought by physical mobility. Virtual exchange should not be positioned as an alternative to mobility, but rather as the perfect complement to it. Spending some months or years in a truly international learning environment is still a unique and irreplaceable experience. The reality is that we still see a growing interest in international higher education. Many students (and parents!) still see the value of a real university experience and the deep benefits of leaving their comfort zone and going on an international education journey. The student of today has access to more information than ever before. Our universities will have to be able to demonstrate social and environmental responsibility in everything we do.

Article featured on Worldbound, edition 9-2023.