While at the beginning the portfolio of the then “Austrian Academic Exchange Service” consisted primarily of support services for students from abroad and visiting researchers a much broader concept of internationalisation developed with the fall of the Iron Curtain and Austria’s accession to the Erasmus programme in 1992. New scholarship and cooperation programmes were launched, greater numbers of Austrian students sought to study abroad and organisational units called “Study Abroad Offices” were set up at the universities to coordinate these activities.
Almost exactly 30 years ago, in October 1991, the OeAD organised its first event for these new offices, the “Study Abroad Offices Conference” in Salzburg. The aim at that time was to provide the universities with information about the OeAD’s services and at the same time to create a space for exchange for the staff of these new units.
In the following years the Study Abroad Offices were (almost everywhere) renamed International Offices, the agendas of transnational cooperation experienced a strategic upgrade through the creation of vice rectorates, and individual measures at higher education institutions were increasingly measured in terms of their quality orientation and institutional added value. The Higher Education Conference established itself as a hub for exchange and advice but also for the discussion of content and strategic issues related to the internationalisation of the Austrian higher education sector. Thus it was both structural and “hands-on” at the same time.
After the expansion of Erasmus in Austria another annual network conference was launched – the Erasmus Spring Conference, which was to establish itself in the following years as a central forum for the discussion of questions related to European objectives and developments that had an impact on Austrian higher education. How can stays abroad successfully be credited academically, what part do internships abroad play in the curriculum, how can the quality ideas of the Higher Education Charter be taken into account, what is the added value of mobility of lecturers or administrative staff of higher education institutions, how can you work in projects on an equal footing with international partners – to name but a few.
In the 30 years that we have held these conferences not only numerous international experts have been guests at our conferences. The science and education agencies of neighbouring countries and global partners such as the European Commission, the ACA, the OSTA in Washington or the IAU have also been actively involved. At the same time the conferences were and are also places for training in reporting, monitoring, the use of databases or the correct accounting of project funds.
Over the years the two events, the Erasmus annual conference in the spring and the higher education conference in the autumn, have become valued and highly frequented exchange forums for all levels involved in internationalisation. Many events took place at higher education institutions outside Vienna, usually lunch-to-lunch. Many events have remained in special memory – for example “Federspiel”’s musical performance before they became famous, an evening at Kufstein fortress and, of course, the inspiring contributions of the invited speakers. From 2017 onwards the two conferences were merged to make the most of synergies between different programme areas.
Today the OeAD sees itself more than ever as a loyal partner of the higher education institutions, and also of decision-makers in education and science in questions of orientation and measures of internationalisation. The variety and diversity of the topics have changed over the years and decades and our annual internationalisation conferences reflect this diversity. And so in 2021, within the framework of the 31st Higher Education Conference, we dedicated ourselves to a topic that was not on any agenda in 1991: “Green Internationalisation”. What does the ambivalence between international interaction and responsibility for global developments mean for the internationalisation strategies of higher education institutions, for internationally oriented programmes, and finally for each of us – read more at www.oead.at/hochschultagung2021.
For the coming years we hope for many more inspiring and, above all, personal opportunities for exchange and working together on the internationalisation of the Austrian higher education sector.
Author: Gerhard Volz