International Students: More than Money

Stories about recent violence against Indian students in Melbourne and the international response have emphasized the importance of international education to Australia in purely quantitative, dollar-based terms; the phrase "$15 billion dollar international education industry" seemed to be pasted formulaically into every article. None asked whether there was a value to Australia, or to international students, beyond that calculation.

Unwittingly, the press as well as the political leaders who are properly concerned about the situation, doubtless benign in and of themselves, are revealing but not addressing the fundamental cause of the problem.

In the last analysis, there is not such a great difference between opportunistic acts of petty crime in the outer suburbs which target international students, and opportunistic educational policies and practices which target international students. In the last analysis, a government which will not grant international students concessional public transport fares has only shaky ground to stand on when it condemns attacks on those who ride trains and buses late at night. Each objectifies the students concerned, and each involves a short-sighted desire for immediate gain whose ramifications for all involved have scarcely been thought through. When you reduce the talent, the needs and the aspirations of thousands of young people to an industry that generates a certain number of dollars, you treat the individuals involved as less than who and what they are.

Australia is justly proud of its institutions of higher learning, some of which are of world class, and others of which at least do well in providing skills and generating ideas which can serve the greater good, here and further afield. International students have an acknowledged place in them, given Australia's developed institutions and strong traditions of academic quality, which may be hard for many to access, in the developing world particularly. There is no need to be coy about the fact that this engagement has economic benefits for Australia, as well as for students' home countries, when they are able to return and maketheir various contributions with new skills.

Yet the basis for any educational enterprise must be more than economic; or rather the "economics" of education have to be more wholistic, concerned with how the production and distribution of resources can be carried out so as to serve the common good, as all economics should be. The economics of anything by this definition concern the fundamental well-being of all the participants. This recognition is necessary even for the financial definitions of success to be met; a "$15 billion dollar international student industry" is no draw-card; only a desire for excellence, and a vision that education can transform lives, can undergird a sustainable
education sector.

Violence is not the only cause for concern for international students. Can we sustain the institutions and the educational experience we offer, when selling them seems to be the only public concern? Will we convince anyone that the security of individuals matters to us when we are obviously looking harder at "metrics" to do with Australian advantage rather than real people or the needs of developing countries?

While critical attention is fortuitously being given to some of the "bottom feeder" private teaching bodies of the shopfront kind at present, the problem is not just a lack of "quality assurance". When Australia's universities are themselves under-funded and enrol international students based on balance-sheet needs rather than any broader strategy of international partnership and engagement, a whole branch of education policy is revealed as bankrupt. At the high end of the quality spectrum as well as the low, we risk objectifying students and jeopardizing the very thing that makes Australian education attractive: a quality that arises from commitment and from values deeper than those of balance-sheets.

The world we inhabit is not a set of closed systems, but a deeply-interdependent network of communities. Australia is a relatively small player in this small world, but it has privileges and resourcesthat bring great responsibility and some hope of a positive role in a very different future. A country that could speak of that responsibility, and of the need for international partnership and understanding as a basic element of education policy, would have a better chance of being a country that could show partnership and understanding to individual Indian students, present and future, too.

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