The Taxi Driver's Guide to International Education

[From an address given at the Dean's Dinner in the Hall of Trinity College, April 24 2010]

If you go to Washington or Canberra, cab drivers are reknowned as pundits and sources of political rumour. In New York, a taxi may be a source of informal reviews of Broadway shows or restaurants. In Melbourne however taxi drivers are a rich source of information about quite different things: cricket, Hindi and Urdu popular culture, Indian restaurants, and international education.

As both locals and visitors may have realized, a large number of Melbourne cab drivers are current or former students, very often from India. They are in my experience a rich source of anecdotal information about local Universities and technical education providers, especially about courses in IT, hospitality and business. They are impressively well-informed and educated people, who have taken on one of the least well-paid or supported positions in local service industry, for the sake of their goal of making Australia a home for themselves and their families.

There were 516,000 international students in Australia in June 2008.  Around 33% of Victoria’s post–secondary students are from overseas.  Although many of these are in the vocational sector, The University of Melbourne’s international enrolment – just under 25% of about 45,000 students – is not the highest among the Group of 8 universities.

The fact that Australia has a significant number of international students is, in the first instance, to be celebrated. It suggests Australian higher education is well-recognized internationally, it provides means for building networks of cooperation in both formal and informal ways, and is of course important to the economy.

Yet the numbers are widely, if not very publicly, acknowledged as problematic. These very large absolute and relative international enrolments in Australian universities are typically driven not by desire for partnerships in development, or even by strategic concerns about Australia’s place in the Asian economy. The numbers in some cases defy even commercial logic; they expose the institutions concerned to huge risks if events such as another SARS or regional economic crisis were to emerge.

There are few Australian higher education institutions that really have a strategy around internationalization that goes much deeper than the revenue international students bring. This myopia has of course been catalysed by the problems of funding higher education; because a University typically loses money on domestic undergraduate enrolments, there is a very deep institutional temptation to set targets for international (and full-fee paying) enrolments that balance the ledger. In a sense, the Universities have had little choice.

During last year’s debate about the safety of international and particularly Indian students, the importance of that economic impact was never hard to see. It was as easy to find articles in the press by searching “$16 billion industry” as by searching for tags more clearly related to higher education or violence against students.

The conversation in the press thus tended unwittingly to reflect a problem, as much as consciously to analyze it. A public conversation about the safety of international students that presented their value and contribution solely in dollar terms reflected an objectification not much more edifying than that exemplified in the tragic and violent events that provoked the whole conversation.

What should we do? The fact of a substantial international enrolment in this and other Universities is a positive thing. These students will play a part in helping Australians understand other countries and cultures, and will take with them, if they return, a deepened sense of Australian culture. All this we may hope will lead to better international relations and partnerships of various kinds.

Yet we should also hope for new funding models in higher education that allow and indeed challenge Universities to take internationalization seriously as an ethical and educational issue, not merely a financial one. Australia’s strong education and research tradition can assist the promotion not only of prosperity, but of civil society itself, in the region. It can also assist Australia to position itself more adequately for coming changes; not only and most obviously the economic power of emerging powers in the region, but even the growth of their respective higher education sectors, which will eventually meet the demand currently driving many students from places like China to Australia.

Australia should also be glad of many of those who will stay, rather than return, such the Indian students undertaking vocational programs. Yet the connections between residence and such programs have been profoundly flawed and need to be reconstructed. Some of the current detours, via taxi ranks and programs students have little real interest in or need for, must give way to programs that international students with ambitions to migrate really want, and Australia really needs.