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April 3, 2006 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Passports of Profit

In 2003 Salient wrote an article basically accusing the university of treating international students as cash-cows. Unlike domestic students, international students have to pay whatever fees the university desires. As a result, they are very lucrative as far as universities are concerned – in fact, most universities do there best to lure international students in an attempt to try and make up for funding shortfalls from the government. They have also proven very valuable for the local economy – an Auckland City economic report in 2004 placed the value of international students to their city at $930 million. Yet with all this focus on profit, has anything actually happened to improve how international students fit into the community? Do we still treat them as cash cows – and continue to ignore paying attention to them as actual students? After all, international student numbers around New Zealand have dropped. At Victoria the numbers have either “plateaued” or “decreased slightly”, depending on who you talk to.

But first of all it is important to know who international students are. The general stereotype of international students is someone “Asian”, who studies commerce and speaks loudly in the library. Time to challenge that general perception. First of all, perhaps we should question the sheer uselessness of a term (“Asian”) that’s meant to stand in for a continent of around four billion people. According to the International Student Guide on the Victoria website, international students comprise 10% of the student population and come from seventy-five countries. So to assume that international students are merely from the Asian continent, ignores the large number of students from North
and South America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific region.

Another important factor is how stereotyping works in society. When we hear an international student talk in the library, many would think, there’s an international student speaking in the library. We notice the fact that it was an international student. When we hear a white guy talk in the library, we don’t think there’s a white guy speaking in the library, we just think there’s some annoying guy talking. We don’t notice their whiteness. We notice things when people are different – it’s normal. That’s how we make generalisations about individuals, ethnicities, and minorities. So now that this article has attempted to idealistically and naively challenge some of these general assumptions, we can move on to examining how they
are treated.

I talk to Professor Neil Quigley, the Pro Vice-Chancellor International at Victoria and ask him whether there has been a drop-off in international students: “No, not really. It depends how exactly you count international students. The number of international students for this year in total, is maybe about the same as last year, or slightly down, but we have also had a fall in first year and new enrolments.” Quigley is reported as saying in 2003 that Victoria was hoping for the proportion of international students to be approximately 15%. Unless the website is wrong, the current proportion of 10% is quite a bit less than expected. Even if there hasn’t actually been a proper drop, why is the university using “a drop-off of international students” as part of its justification to increase its fees by 10%? But now’s not the time to get involved in petty statistics-bashing. Won’t someone think of the students?

Why have student numbers dropped? At the very best levels have fallen slightly lower than forecasted. Quigley says it “is entirely the ongoing effects of fewer Chinese students coming to language schools and New Zealand. It’s mostly changes in China. The Chinese government has invested a huge amount in creating new universities in China, so that there’s a lot more capacity for people to enter university there. And also there’s a lot more opportunities to learn English in China rather than coming to New Zealand, so I think that the big boom in the number of Chinese students that we saw a few years ago is unlikely to be repeated.” Nick Kelly, VUWSA president, also attributes falling enrolments to the high dollar. The higher our dollar, the more a foreign student will have to pay. Kelly says “it meant that in some cases it [fees] almost doubled because of the dollar into the end of students’ degrees.” There’s also the sneaking feeling that we, as a country, haven’t actually treated them that well. Quigley admits, “we do understand that if we want international students to come here the most important recruitment vehicle in the long-term is word of mouth. So having international students leave here thinking that this was a positive experience for them is a really important thing to do.” But with the failure of many English language schools (which provide a stepping stone onto university for many students), New Zealand’s reputation took a bit of a hit. Even the Right Honourable Winston Peters acknowledged so – “there was an irresponsible side of capitalism to export education. . . I regard that as a lessening of the obligation to China which we promised. I don’t blame the Government for that. This was an industry that called for these changes, I think with hindsight. . . we could have monitored their performance more closely.” With all this talk of profits though, it still didn’t seem that anyone was thinking too much about the students.

I try to talk to Victoria International – an organisation setup to help international students – about some of the problems students face, but for some reason they refuse to comment. I am, however, able to get through to the Victoria’s brand-spanking-new International Students’ Officer, Fiona Shi. In fact to digress briefly, this is the first year our Student Association has had an elected international students’ officer. Without wishing to cast aspersion on the queer officer, Ngai Tauira, or, for the love of god, the environmental officer, it seems almost ridiculous that ten percent of the student population weren’t able to get recognition until now. I don’t doubt the worthiness of the other positions (except maybe the environments officer), but surely students who come from overseas and pay exorbitant fees should have some form of student representation. Kelly admits the university in general was slow to react to the large influx of international students. “The sector hadn’t really prepared itself. Suddenly this was an opportunity for revenue, open the doors, in they come, then we deal with the issues later on. That’s not been just tertiary either, it’s been primary, and with secondary as well. I don’t think there’s been the same level of support and there wasn’t the planning there, so over time, we’ve started to catch up, but in the meantime they’ve started to drop off again.”

Shi tells me some of the problems are a lot more personal instead of what we normally assume: “I think the problem is partly academic work because their English is still so poor. The second thing is there are quite a lot of things going on for international students on their own – home sickness, they have to sort out their own things, financial problems and sometimes it’s about their own emotional things.” It’s almost as if students are chucked over and expected to cope in a foreign environment. There isn’t even anything perfunctory given to them. A student who goes over to America, gets at least a booklet telling them about the American way of life. In New Zealand, up until very recently there was nothing – we could at least make them understand that we’re the type of country to make an overly hairy sheep lead the news. Kelly says Victoria International can play a role in giving some information, but also “there could be some more generic stuff from the Ministry of Education when they let them in the country. I know there has been an increase in that sort of stuff but there’s still a long way to go. A long way to go.”

There have been some improvements. Courses with large proportions of international students like Commerce and Media Studies for example, have specialist international student tutorials to help with the basics. Dr. Colin Jeffcoat, an Associate Dean in the Commerce Faculty explains the rationale: “To survive, the university needs good numbers of internationals, so we do need to take care of them. We need to recognise that they do have problems that other domestic students don’t have generally.” It’s about time some academic support existed – and now it’s up to the International Students to take advantage
of them.

A common misconception about international students is that they are so well-off that they don’t need financial support. International students don’t have access to the student loan scheme, and have serious limits on how much they can work. Obviously these measures are in place to prevent abuse of the student system for people wanting to work, but this approach was best summed up by former international student and Salient stalwart Geoff Brischke: “One thing that always fucked me off was the number of hours I was allowed to work as an international student. It was recently bumped from 15 to 20 per week, but even that was never good enough. I could never figure it out – was the NZ government afraid that I was going to pay one of their unis tens of thousands of dollars and then try to drain the economy by taking savings from a minimum wage with me when I went back overseas? I can sort of understand the argument that working full-time would take my focus away from my studies, but shit, those I knew who didn’t work spent all their free time drinking anyway, so what the fuck?” Students don’t get access to the Community Services Card –there’s hard to see a justification for that. Kelly highlights how “you still end up having students just surviving and depending on money being sent from overseas. You get extremes, you get the ones that are really well off and the ones who have nothing.”

One of the other major problems international students face is that they often don’t integrate into New Zealand society. Shi highlights how “you generally see them going out together in their own nationalities. Again it is partly because their English is quite poor, they are quite shy speaking up and I suppose from the beginning, they were with Chinese people or with their own groups, so it just makes it even harder to fit into another group.” A study by B. Aston in 1996 found only 11% of Asian international students had best friends who were New Zealanders, while Canadian and Australian studies (according to the Ministry of Education website) cited the inability to make local friends as an issue that causes a lot of stress and isolation. Quigley suggests that “one of the biggest problems on the social scene is that a lot of the social activities of New Zealand students involve drinking and a lot of our international students, particularly those from Asia or the Middle East don’t drink, or they drink very little if they do. So they’re actually quite uncomfortable in social situations that involve large amounts of drinking. International students from other countries [like the United States or Germany] that have a culture that’s a bit more like New Zealand student fit in a bit more readily.” It probably comes more down to being able to integrate generally. Brischke says “I really don’t remember ever feeling like an international student. I guess I’m atypical in the sense that I was at Vic for four years instead of just a year on exchange. Plus English is my first language and I basically got to watch all the same tv shows. In fact, once I had picked up the slang and was able to use it seamlessly in conversation there was never really any issue. I think that is more important that some realise, speaking the same slang – it’s an important integrational tool that is probably overlooked. Even if I don’t have the accent, I used “sweet as” and “heaps” enough so that I was able to blend.” So what to do with people who may not fit readily in? Should they be discounted if they don’t make an effort? Or as Brischke puts it: “so why make friends if you know they are going to leave.”

In reality, both sides have to make an effort. Now most students won’t do anything unless there is an advantage to them. How about this? Quigley points out that “young New Zealanders are great travellers when they finish their degrees. A very high proportion of them will go overseas and what they’ll find if they want to work overseas is that there are a lot of Asian people, they have to do business with people in the Middle East and so on. So the fact they’ve had much more exposure to people from Asia and other countries here in New Zealand as students will hopefully help them understand what they’re getting themselves in for.” But then that would be a very selfish reason – hell it’s always good opening yourself up to meet new people. There can be simple pleasures, like learning how to properly use chopsticks, discovering the joys of yum char or hearing Germans crack a joke. Shi also says contact from domestic students will help break down the barriers: “If Kiwis can talk to our international students then that would be very, very great. Sometimes just one sentence, saying ‘hi, how are you’, would be very much appreciated.” Also there needs to be a push for international students to get involved. Shi says international students “don’t get involved in any activities with Victoria. In fact there are things going on, so I think the first thing is to let them know they can get involved and they should get involved.” If both sides can make an effort, not only would the integration be made easier, but life at university would be infinitely more interesting. International students are not simply here to keep our fees down – they’re interesting people too.


About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

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