IMHE General Conference - An ongoing dialogue

 

The Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) General Conference 2008 has been one of the largest IMHE General Conference ever since 1972. 330 registered participants from 53 countries attended this Conference on 8th to 10th September 2008 at the OECD Headquarters in Paris. This stimulating and enlightening Conference discussed the theme of the quality, relevance and impact of higher education. Different aspects of this topic were addressed by an extremely distinguished group of speakers. Discussions between audiences and speakers have also been fascinating and are believed to be continuing after the conference.


This year, the IMHE Governing Board members have chosen the outcomes of higher education: a theme particularly appropriate for this General Conference focusing on the quality, relevance and impact of such outcomes. Panels included a lead speaker followed by two or three panellists, focusing on balancing the needs and expectations of society with the autonomy of institutions; reputation and ranking – the impact on institutional strategy and behaviour of international ranking tables; and assessing learning and employment outcomes. Parallel sessions, featuring pairs of speakers, were devoted to even broader educational issues: institutional measures to assess and improve quality; reputation and ranking – the impact on institutional strategy and behaviour of international ranking tables; assessing learning and employment outcomes; balancing the needs and expectations of society with the autonomy of institutions; value for money and efficiency in higher education; quality and relevance; some policy responses; and also institutional diversity and transparency. In addition, parallel group sessions on OECD work in Higher Education took the form of two presentations per session reflecting the current work at OECD: thematic review of tertiary education policy and policy determinants of investment in tertiary education; university futures and open educational resources; facilities for higher education and higher education and regions; and supporting quality teaching and the mobility of researchers.


With regard to these topics, this General Conference served many purposes within the field of higher education, the importance of which varies with the role and perspective of different types of participants. For policy-makers, the conference functions principally as a channel of communication. It provides an opportunity to present new research in academic disciplines, where there is a need to establish new policies with regard to the findings. For institutional leaders, it presents a changing path of individual and institutional accomplishment, thereby helping to establish regulations and rules for better learning outcomes in higher education settings. For academic experts, the conference constitutes the scholarly repositories of information and knowledge.


There has been much discussion recently of the advantage of attending a conference that might enhance the creation and diffusion of knowledge through dialogue. The idea of supporting academic dialogue across the globe in fact does not simply aim for communication; it is bound by what it can gain out of this format of talking. Given that the etymology of the word dialogue is a combination of “through" (dia) and "reasoning"/"discourse" (logos), dialogue provides new perspectives or creates new understandings of knowledge for participants by sharing. Through dialogue, participants borrow and further make sense of meaning, such as personal communication of varying kinds. Thus one of the fundamental roles of this conference was to provide an extended space beyond participants’ routine work where they have the opportunity to enter into dialogue, ready to have their view of things changed in some way by asking about what they have heard. As such, this conference certainly played an important role in advancing through the lively exchange of ideas, including formal and informal dialogue in which inquires were generated, views were formed, evidence was tested, and conclusions were drawn.


The General Conference can be regarded as a professional reward to its participants because it has provided a direct route to acquire the contemporary knowledge of higher education across the globe. For participants, whose professional life is fraught with workload pressure, dealing with e-mails, administration and an excessive number of meetings, a lively exchange of ideas in a relaxed way is a true boon. As one participant commented, it is not only just about food and drinks; it is a way for people to converse jovially with other researchers. Most of the time, it has been proved that conversations during the conference can be even more fruitful than the talks in the workplace, because every participant is making an effort to cultivate conversation and thereby developing friendships as well as networking opportunities. It is a great opportunity for participants to engage in conversation with a new contact. In a conference context, most people usually do not refrain from striking up conversations with strangers; rather, they are eager to get to know their colleagues. Thus, a conference provides a great opportunity to establish interesting discussions and to develop the confidence to make new contacts. Dialogue is about gaining further understanding and about learning from others, which means looking for knowledge in what others are saying and linking it to our own understandings. As an observer at the conference, I enjoyed the unpredictable nature of such conversations around me during the conference. They sometimes started with one subject, which quickly changed as others asked questions or expressed interest. At times, these conversations shifted from a light chat into a serious discussion or from a joke into a critical argument.


There are different types of dialogue in a conference – formal and information. On the one hand, conversations during the breaks are sometimes more stimulating than formal presentations because there is more interaction. Conference presentations, as a way of interacting in academic circles, are normally well constructed, but do not provide the type of interactive scenario wherein people naturally converse in daily life. During a conference session, the format of academic dialogue remains a one-to-multiple structure, and most participants remain as passive listeners at any given moment. Participants usually sit in one place during each session, while ready to move around during the breaks. The relationship between those involved in a conversation is more open, flexible, and informal. On the other hand, it is invaluable to encounter quality presentations in an effective manner. It is this rigid format of presentations that has been popular since its start and has brought most of people around the world together for three or four days. To sum up, no matter what format of dialogue, the quality and the extent of dialogue between participants during the conference lay at the heart of this successful conference.

 

Jingjing Zhang
PhD candidate
Department of Education
University of Oxford
jingjing.zhang@education.ox.ac.uk

 

 

 

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