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Why international education?

Stuart Middleton


29 March 2010

There are reports of a primary school principal awaiting a court appearance for eliminating international students from the count of students at his school thus concealing income.

A secondary school reports to me that “they are going to have cash flow problems later” because of the collapse of the Korean market.

At the tertiary level there is a steady growth in numbers of international students at the postgraduate level but a decline in enrolments at other levels.

The question must be asked – has international education as New Zealand has interpreted it reached the end of its product cycle? Do we need now to focus on a different product? The focus on undergraduate and foundation level programmes might now have to be adjusted to focus much more clearly on postgraduate levels.

And has New Zealand a clear view of international education that goes beyond mere budget fodder?

There is some agreement that Australia has trumped New Zealand in marketing but now struggles in maintaining a reputation for being a safe destination. New Zealand has struggled with over-all enrolments since the peak in 2003-2004 simply because it rates below the US, UK and Australia as an overseas study destination.

It could be that the pattern with students from China is a sign of a pattern that will follow across other countries. That decline has seen a dramatic decrease of 53% since peak in 2003 / 2004 of visa approval for Chinese students. Were some of this not to be compensated for by an increase in numbers from the Middle East the decline would be much more apparent and more serious in its impact. (There has been a tenfold increase in student visa and permit approvals for Saudi Arabian students, rising from 381 in 2005/06 to 3,162 in 2008/09.) Add to this the continuing strength and growth of students from India and the question is asked – are we seeing a pattern of growth / decline such as that experienced with China which might well be replicated in the future?

New Zealand has always had a one-way attitude towards international education. Teams of marketers would travel the world harvesting crops of students who would arrive with their bags of cash and budgets would be greatly swelled to the unashamed pleasure of administrators. But where was the traffic the other way?

New Zealand has had a poor reputation for sending its young people off to other systems in the way that the United States has. Apart from the very trivial gap year stuff, New Zealanders have always seen OE as belonging to a pre-qualification or post-qualification experience much more than a means of experience study and learning and growth in this way. It was only occasionally associated with education and career development. Perhaps that is changing a little now and that is a good thing.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Colombo Plan was a programme for bringing young students to New Zealand from South East Asia to advance their qualifications. This was at a cost to New Zealand and not based on income generation. It had a focus on high level qualifications and many of those who went through the programme went on to have distinguished careers back in their home countries.

It was a pleasure for me to go up to the Regional English Language Centre in Singapore in the 1980s to enjoy wonderful hospitality and professional exchanges with leading academics and administrators at that centre who had been through the programme. The legacies of that programme were a respect for and love of New Zealand that could not be bought by marketing or diplomacy or by charging them huge amounts for the privilege. Such programmes are the real investments.

Rotary was involved in a feature of that programme which was the tour of New Zealand being hosted by various clubs along the way. One Singaporean colleague insisted on telling me each time I saw him of his stay in Otahuhu at the house of Dr and Mrs Lange and enjoying the company of their young son David.

A new feature of the international education landscape is a developing change in the attitude of the United States. Of course they have always had quite a robust level of international activity both ways. But as budget pressures bite in, it is anticipated that the cheaper US dollar, the wide supply of on-campus student accommodation and their new revised and faster visa application processes will see them improving their position further. They seem likely to increase their market share which already runs at 20% of the global international education activity.

We need to rethink the strategy and the fit for international education in New Zealand. This would present an opportunity for us to reflect on the relationship between that activity and the growing international communities in New Zealand. In some institutions, there will come a time (is it already here?) when domestic student communities will resemble international intakes. This is exactly what living in a global world means.

The future of international education could be based around a global view of the world and our place in it rather than the mere continuation of living in our own world supported by cash flow from other countries. Going hand in hand with that would be excitement at the diaspora of New Zealanders who rise to the challenge of a global world and seek opportunity in it. The negative whinging that is characteristic of our discussion of this element of today’s world reflects a self-centred obsession – Godzone, pure 100%, English only spoken here! Just as we farewell some of our young who display the same attitudes that brought our forebears here, we should welcome international people who contribute so much to other fabric of society. Many birds return to the nest, fish to the river and people to their families,

We are the richer for it – perhaps not in our budgets but certainly in our heads and hearts.

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