Sarah Todd, APAIE

Sarah Todd, APAIE

As Sarah Todd comes to the end of her sixth and final year as president of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education, she spoke to The PIE about her takeaways from the 2023 APAIE conference, as well as how she believes sustainability and international education can go hand in hand.


APAIE welcomed 2,700 participants from 67 countries and regions in 2023

Todd, who continues her role as vice president, global, at Griffith University, describes her time as the association’s president as an “incredible opportunity” but one which she didn’t expect to last quite so long, with her tenure extended due to the pandemic.

“Did I know it was going to last six years? No, I may not have said yes!” Todd laughs.

When the conference last took place in Kuala Lumpar in 2019, the world was a very different place, notes Todd.

After a three-year hiatus, the APAIE conference returned in Bangkok in March 2023 and it wasn’t until her flight left the tarmac that Todd was truly convinced it would finally go ahead.

First held in university campuses, the conference has since grown and in 2023, it welcomed some 2,700 participants from 67 countries and regions, reaching a record level of attendance.

The association itself aims to advance education through enabling greater cooperation between institutions, to enrich and support international programs, activities and exchanges, and to promote the value of international education within the Asia-Pacific region, as well being a conduit to connect Asia-Pacific organisations with the rest of the world.

However, the success of the conference has not been without its challenges, Todd tells The PIE.

“Asia-Pacific is very diverse region and there are different understandings of things and different ways of doing things,” she says.

That’s why the cultural component, including local contribution from a host university each year, is vital, Todd adds.

“We try to make sure that [delegates] not only have a good conference experience, but that they go away with a sense of where they are.

“Personally, I think, in international education, sometimes we do just seem to be at airports, universities, hotels, and home again. You don’t always have a chance to be exposed to a little bit more about the culture, the history and food.”

Distinctively, APAIE’s theme always centres around the Asia-Pacific region, but welcomes contributions from global institutions and organisations, as long as presentations are made in partnership with an institution in the region, or is related to collaboration with Asia-Pacific.

“I’m very enthusiastic about the future of international education and particularly its maturity.

“Like all things, it goes through a lifecycle, and we’ve moved on over the years from signing up with every partner. I used to joke about having an MoU in your handbag.”

Now, institutions are more measured, says Todd, and take time to consider the mutual benefit of each partnership.

“In international education, sometimes we do just seem to be at airports, universities, hotels, and home again”

One of Todd’s biggest takeaways from the conference is new insight on how international education fits within working towards the UN’s SDGs, she tells The PIE.

This year, the theme’s conference was Towards a sustainable future for international education in the Asia Pacific.

“If you look at it very quickly you might think international education is actually contrary to the SDGs, but really international collaboration and partnerships is the only way we’re going to get close to achieving those goals.

“Equally for students, yes, they may be travelling, but we really need to think about what the experience is and what do they go away with.

“Events in the world now and over the last few years I think has reinforced that need to work together and that we are one community.”

As for in-person conferences, Todd believes they are here to stay.

“I think going forward it will be that balance between how we use technology to stay connected, but still providing face-to-face opportunities.”

Todd, originally from New Zealand, was previously the inaugural pro vice-chancellor of international at the University of Otago, and professor of marketing and academic dean at Otago’s business school.

She has her own study abroad experience too, having spent her final year of high school in Japan, at a school which had never had an international student before, and attributes the impact of her experience partly down to experiencing culture shock.

“It was definitely transformative and shaped me but there was much I learned because of the discomfort and the explicit acknowledgement of the difference and not always trying to assume that everything was the same.

“On my first day, I was supposed to do a senior level Japanese test and I couldn’t even write my name.”

Todd doesn’t suggest the sector goes back to those harsher days, but does believe there is something to be said for a student getting out of their comfort zone.

“How do we support students so that they do have a good time, make academic progress and achieve the goals that they sought in international education and make sure that they fit in in the way that they want to fit in if that’s what they want to do?

“But at the same time, how do we recognise that they are in a different country and a different culture?”

“It’s definitely about balance,” says Todd.

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